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Palm Oil & The Air We Breathe.

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

We think it is safe to assume that everyone has heard of Palm oil and most people are aware of the negative press that surrounds it. But is it really that bad and should we boycott it altogether?

*Panoramic image of Rainforest

First, let us understand a bit more about Palm oil.

According to the WWF,

  • Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of Oil Palm Trees

  • Palm oil produces two products: crude palm oil and palm kernel oil.

  • Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global palm oil supply, but 42 other countries produce it.

  • Palm oil is an important crop for emerging economies and there are millions of smallholder farms who rely on palm oil for their livelihood.

  • Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop. It produces more oil per land area than any other equivalent crop. To get the same amount of oil from other sources such as soybean or coconut, you would need anywhere between 4 and 10 times the land.

  • Palm oil is found in around 50% of all packaged supermarket products including, but not limited to, food, lipstick, deodorant, soaps, and shampoos.

  • Palm oil is extremely versatile, gives products a longer shelf life and is relatively cheap – which are just some of the reasons being it so prevalent in a wide range of products.

All of that does not sound too bad, right? Its natural, abundant, requires less land mass and resources to grow than similar products, its cheap and supports millions of small farmers. So why is it considered bad?

*Image of palm fruit and mechanically extracted palm oil

Why is palm oil considered harmful?

Rainforest Rescue states that Palm oil plantations now cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface which produces around 66 million tonnes of Palm oil annually. They say that “today, a rainforest area the equivalent of 300 soccer fields is being destroyed every hour.”

*Panoramic image of sweeping palm oil plantation on cleared Rainforest land

The Young Peoples Trust for the Environment said “Before humans started destroying the rainforests, they covered 15% of the Earth’s Land area, today, they cover less than 3%. Out of 6 million square miles of tropical rainforest that once existed worldwide, only 2.4 million square miles remain. In just the last 50 years, one third of tropical rainforests have been destroyed.”

Agriculture is a leading driver of deforestation which, according to the WWF, is a threat to people and nature. Not only are forests essential to the air we breathe, but globally more than 1 billion people live in and around them who rely on forests for food shelter and livelihoods. They are also home to a plethora of biodiversity and wildlife.

Deforestation of diverse rainforests leads to harmful monocultures, displaces human communities, and increases human-wildlife conflicts, particularly for many endangered species like tigers,

elephants, and rhinos. Not to mention the much-publicised harms to orangutans.

To clear large parts of forest, a common method is to burn it, causing significant rises in air pollution and carbon dioxide.

The process of farming and extracting palm oil creates effluent that is released into water ways polluting them and the surrounding soils. This effluent can travel miles downstream affecting large areas.

The clearing of forests and unsuitable planting arrangements of Palm oil trees causes soil erosion which creates flooding and silt deposits further downstream. Areas that have been eroded loose much of their natural goodness and require more fertiliser and other chemicals.

Clearing of the Indonesian Tropical Peat Forrest in particular, has a significant impact on climate change. These peat forests are carbon sinks and according to the WWF, store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world. The WWF tell us that due to its high deforestation rate, Indonesia is the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gasses and the worlds largest producer of palm oil.

Logging for lucrative timbers such as teak or mahogany is also prevalent in places like Indonesia and Brazil where an estimated 70-80% of logging is illegal and further destroys the rainforests.

Human Rights Watch says it has intervened in the country, with residents and communities reportedly intimidated and harassed from their land so that palm oil companies can clear peatlands for palm oil production.

Once these peat lands are drained, they become a significant fire risk and in 2015, after large scale fires in deforested areas, a study released by Harvard and Columbia reported that these fires contributed to the deaths of around 100,000 people in Southeast Asia. These fires were so significant that they were called a ‘crime against humanity’.

*Rainforest wildfire

Greenpeace has also found evidence of illegal logging operations in critical orangutan habitat landscapes for not only palm oil mono-crop productions but also for pulp and paper plantations.

They claim that “Despite Forest Conservation Policies, certifications and the proliferation of ‘no deforestation commitments’, the industry is still responsible for ongoing and widespread deforestation. “

With palm oil and deforestation of our rainforests in general, being responsible for some terrible environmental, human and wildlife concerns, what should we do as consumers?

Should we avoid palm oil altogether and boycott products that contain it?

We are not here to tell you what to do. We each must make our own decisions but as with all things, sustainability is complex, especially in a globally connected consumerist society and avoiding the palm oil altogether is arguably not as ethical or straightforward as it may sound.

As mentioned before, Palm oil plantations produce more oil per land area than any other equivalent crop. To get the same amount of oil from other sources such as soybean or coconut, you would need anywhere between 4 and 10 times the land. Given the current palm oil plantations are estimated to cover around 27 million hectares of the earths surface, if global markets suddenly stopped using it and began producing something else to replace it, this could turn up to 270 million hectares into barren ‘green deserts’ of monoculture.

Greenpeace tell us that palm oil is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies and there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood. To these small farmers and communities, international boycotts could cause real and devastating harms.

*Smallholder farmer tending his palm oil crop

What about Responsibly sourced Palm Oil, is that better?

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 which produces a ‘best practice’ standard for producing and sourcing palm oil. It has buy-in from more than 4000 members, representative of all links in the palm oil supply chain. It also encourages organisations to be transparent in their use of palm oil, to know who they are buying from and how the palm oil has been produced. They also encourage investment in smallholder programs and sustainable landscape initiatives.

In 2012, the UK Government set a commitment that 100% of palm oil used in the UK must be from sustainable sources by 2015. There are variations of success across sectors but according to the WWF In 2016, 75% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were considered sustainable. While this is great progress, more needs to be done to eradicate unsustainable palm oil from the UK.

While that all sounds very encouraging, The Orangutan Alliance published an article in July 2020 referencing a new study published in Science of the total environment, which they claim is “alarming” and "has exposed the validity of certified sustainable palm oil."

They say that “the findings suggest that sustainable certification is misleading as it does not take into account the recent-time of the land. If tighter, stronger guidelines for sustainable palm oil are not introduced we could see the collapse of the world’s tropical rainforests ecosystems.

They go on to say that “Currently, sustainable palm oil certification results in the continued degradation of tropical rainforests and an alarming loss of wildlife. As the human population continues to grow, so will demand for vegetable oils”.

With over 3 million small-scale farmers of palm oil around the globe, a growing number of environmental bodies believe that they are the answer to sustainable palm oil farming of the future.

How easy would it be to avoid palm oil?

Earlier on, we mentioned the prolific use of palm oil in over 50% of all packaged supermarket goods. But what we did not mention, was just how hard palm oil is to spot, and therefore avoid.

Ethical Consumer magazine tells us that since 2014, the EU law on food information to consumers (known as FIC) means all food items containing palm oil must be labelled as such. This law does not cover non-food items or derivatives of palm oil in either food or non-food items.

Ethical Consumer Magazine tells us that Palm oil can appear on an ingredient list as any of 436 different names! Yet, about 60% of the global palm oil use in the form of derivatives which is not covered by the EU law we just mentioned. To make palm oil even harder to spot, Orangutan Alliance state there are over 200 names just for palm oil derivatives.

To make identifying palm oil even harder still, not all ingredients may solely mean palm oil. For instance, E471 may mean palm oil, soybean oil, coconut oil, cottonseed oil or canola oil! The Orangutan Alliance advise that where uncertainty exists, further checks with ingredient manufacturers is required.

Spotting responsibly sourced palm oil is, in theory, easier as most products containing it will display a certificate or accreditation trademark. Ethical Consumer provide images of trademarks in their article titled Palm oil labelling

We are not here to tell you what you should do. We have put together an overview of the situation and it is really for you to conduct your own research and reach your own decision.

We live in hope of either more sustainable alternatives being found or for a complete sea-change in consumerist activities to reduce the demand for palm oil in the first place. We have one planet, and we are consuming it an alarming rate. While rainforest destruction is terrible for all eco-systems within it, to destroy the ‘lungs of the Earth’ willingly and knowingly so that we can continue to consume at our current excessive levels is, in our mind at least, unnecessary and unacceptable.

The difficulties for us are that many small-scale farmers rely on the income from palm oil. Palm Oil is so prolific in much of our consumer products, we find it would currently be near impossible to avoid it altogether, and in doing so would cause significant harm to the families who rely on it to survive.

We believe that UK, and indeed global policymakers must do more to protect these precious Rainforests and insist on clearly labeled ingredients so that we, as consumers, can make informed decisions on our purchases. They must also do more to lobby international governments for meaningful change to an industry that, in our opinion, needs rapid and enforced reform.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

And, as Alanis Obomsawin said, “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”


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