I constantly see, in the sustainability community, resistance to using palm oil. Indeed, as a soap maker and a lover of bathroom products (and Nutella), I was one of them. But then I got to thinking, is it so bad? What are people, countries and organisations doing about this problem that everyone is talking about? So on a quest to be more critically informed, I researched the most common questions about palm oil to discover: What is the problem with palm oil?
What is Palm oil?
The Palm Oil tree (Elaeis Guineensis) is the basis of the world's most commonly consumed vegetable oil. The palm oil tree grows in regions around the equator. It has leaves that can reach up to five meters in length.
As the tree matures, it produces fruit in bunches containing hundreds of palm fruits. Each of these fruits is about the size of a large olive and has a single seed known as a kernel. This kernel is used to make palm kernel oil extracted from the fruit.
An individual tree can produce up to 40 kilogrammes of oil yearly, significantly contributing to global food security and economic growth. This is according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
If you want to dive into the full detail of this incredible plant, then look at the Palm Oil Alliance website. There, you can learn more about the sources and uses of the oil, as well as the various initiatives and organisations that are actively involved in its production.
Additionally, the website provides insight into the sustainability issues relating to the commodity and the steps that are being taken to ensure that it is produced and used sustainably. But if you only want the highlights, then read on…
What are the pros and cons of palm oil?
Positives of Palm Oil – why is Palm Oil so popular?
Palm oil is very healthy and has no strong scent or flavour. It is popular in cooking and other consumable products because it has a high-temperature tolerance and can make those flavours stand out when added to other ingredients.
Palm Oil is an incredibly productive crop, making the oil inexpensive. Together, palm oil and kernel oil make up 40% of the world's vegetable oil production. Palm oil has the highest yield of any oil crop per hectare of land, with an average of 3.8 tons of oil produced annually. Palm oil takes up 7.4% of all land used for vegetable oils, yet it makes up 39.6% of all oils and fats. Every year, 73 million tons of palm oil are produced.
The WWF has established that four to ten times more land would be required to attain the same amount of alternative oils, such as soybean or coconut.
What products use Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is widely used in various products, including food items, detergents, soaps, cosmetics, and biofuel. The demand for palm oil is staying strong but increasing as the IMARC Group reports: The global palm oil market size reached US$ 53.1 Billion in 2022.
The IMARC group also forecasted that it expects the market to reach US$ 67.6 Billion by 2028, exhibiting a growth rate (CAGR) of 4% during 2023-2028.
Is palm oil a healthy oil? Yes!
There is no denying that Palm Oil is a beneficial choice for health. It is void of cholesterol, easy to digest, and contains carotenoids and Vitamin A. Additionally, its shelf-life is longer and cost-wise, it is more affordable than other vegetable oils.
Why is Palm Oil essential to Economies?
Initially discovered in West Africa, the oil palm tree is mainly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the planet's biggest palm oil-producing countries. Together, these two countries account for 85% of the palm oil used worldwide.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) states that the palm oil industry gives work and support to over seven million plantation workers, smallholders, and their families. Palm oil production is a critical natural resource in these countries where their economies are struggling.
Cons of Palm Oil – what is the problem with Palm oil?
WWF believes that palm oil production does not have to be destructive. Palm Oil can be produced responsibly as a part of sustainable development.
As Palm Oil popularity continues, this has led to the growth of numerous palm oil plantations across the globe. Sometimes with devastating effects such as:
Loss of habitat for endangered species
The cultivation of oil palm plantations has devastating consequences on many plant and animal species. Human-wildlife interaction also worsens as large animals are confined to ever-shrinking patches of natural surroundings.
The areas destroyed often contain rare species or act as pathways between different places of genetic variation. Even national parks have yet to be spared; 43% of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra has been illegally taken over by palm oil plantations, disregarding the fact that the park was created to provide a habitat for the endangered Sumatran Tiger.
Soil erosion and Water Pollution
2.5 tons of effluent (liquid waste) is created for every metric ton of palm oil produced. Now imagine this effluent is released without being appropriately managed. It can lead to the pollution of freshwater sources, damaging the creatures and people who rely on them. Palm Oil plantations are not the most intensive users of pesticides and fertilisers, but their improper usage can pollute surface and groundwater.
Additionally, when forests are cut down to make space for these plantations and when trees are planted in unsuitable arrangements, erosion can be caused. This erosion can lead to increased flooding and sedimentation in rivers and ports. It can necessitate the use of more fertiliser and other materials for repair.
Setting fire is a general approach for removing vegetation from natural woodlands and oil palm plantations. Burning forests produces smoke and carbon dioxide that contaminate the air and add to climate change. Fires in peat regions are tough to extinguish. The smoke and fog from these flames have detrimental impacts on the health of individuals in Southeast Asia.
The destruction of tropical peat forests in Indonesia is especially hazardous, as these carbon reservoirs contain more carbon for each unit of area than any other kind of habitat on the planet. Moreover, burning vegetation to create oil palm plantations is a source of carbon dioxide that adds to global warming. Due to its tremendous rate of deforestation, Indonesia is the third-most significant contributor to greenhouse gases worldwide.
If you have read this far, you are probably depressed (like I was writing it). But don't despair! The following section concerns what we, as consumers, can do to help.
How can I make a difference?
Pay attention to products which are trying to do the right thing by being sustainable and more importantly, support them. The farmers who are clearing land illegally are doing so because the plant is profitable. But if they cannot sell their palm oil because they havent met the sustainable standards, then this is a win for the sustainable industry and slows down the desire to do things illegally thus also slowing down deforestation.
How do I, as a consumer, know which products have sustainable palm oil in them?
Greenpeace, WWF, Ecologi and the Palm Oil Alliance supported some big projects working with sustainable farmers. By buying responsibly, you can know that you are supporting their causes and, in turn, the sustainable industry.
Whenever you buy a product with palm oil, always look for….
Should I steer clear of Palm Oil from now on?
NO! Quite the opposite
From writing and researching this article, my mind has changed. Initially, I thought the outcome would be “Boycott all palm oil products!”. But to my complete surprise, it is the reverse, this is why:
Palm Oil deforestation is decreasing
The good news is that deforestation is decreasing. According to WWF, WRI and the Palm Oil Alliance, this decline results from strengthened law enforcement, moratoria, certification of palm oil plantations and corporate zero-deforestation commitments.
Government initiatives in Indonesia and Malaysia have been introduced in the past years to combat deforestation, such as a permanent moratorium on primary forests and peatland conversion or stricter forest laws. But the fight isn't over!
Palm Oil is better for the environment.
I know that comment is controversial. But hear me out…
This oil should be a staple in our diet because it is low in cholesterol and it produces more per square metre than any other plant. Think about that – It makes more with less. Rapeseed oil needs more ground than a Palm tree. In addition, it has few pests, so pesticides are not usually used on the plant, and it is, therefore, primarily organic. However, you need to use a lot of fertilisers to sustain a healthy crop, which can lead to issues with effluent water but if managed correctly this is not a problem.
When I talked to my husband about writing this article, he was incredibly sceptical; he doesn't believe that the answers lie in Governments being able to do the right thing or those big charitable organisations that can help stop the burning of our beautiful natural ecosystems. He believes, like many others, that we should boycott buying products with Palm oil in them.
But my research shows that this doesn't help solve the problem.
We need to do more.
The devastation of irresponsible farming and the clearing of natural ecosystems cannot be ignored. This is why it is vital for governments worldwide to support sustainable agriculture and also for us to keep trying to enforce the reforestation of these valuable ecosystems.
All of the right organisations are behind this, and you should be too.
The German government have also written a report that supports this view. You can read all about it on the BMEL website.
But I have to have faith. Faith that we can repair the damage of the past. Trust that governments can and will implement more practical education, and legislation to be put in place. And hope that more farmers will do the right thing and stop clearing forest land illegally.
The damage has been done; now, we must work together to fix it and stop it from happening again.