The first time I heard about palm oil was on an episode of Grace and Frankie. Frankie developed a yam lube (yeah you read that right), but she has to fight the company to keep palm oil out of the product. Palm oil is significantly more affordable for the corporation, but Frankie takes a stand to save the rainforest. After watching the episode, I was wondering what is palm oil and why was it so important for her to fight against it, so I did some researching.
What is Palm Oil?
I’m really surprised I had never heard of palm oil before because it is an ingredient in at least half of all consumer products. Even though palm oil is in almost all my personal care products, most packaged foods, and even biodiesel, it goes by about 200 different names, making it harder to identify.
The oil is grown in tropical climates and sourced from the African oil tree. Although it originated in Africa, 85% of palm oil produced is exported from Indonesia and Malaysia, home of the most biodiverse forests on earth.
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Palm Oil Positives
There are multiple perks to palm oil, explaining why it is so common.
Palm oil is the most efficient source of vegetable oil. It can be harvested year round and uses 10 times less land than all of the other oil producing crops. This means it also uses fewer pesticides (than non-organic options) and energy to maintain and harvest. Because it is so efficient, it costs significantly less than other oils, making it the go-to for corporations producing products.
The oil is also very versatile as it can be used as a solid or liquid, can withstand high temperatures, and is a natural preservative. This is why it can be used in such a wide variety of products.
Part of its popularity stems from the United States attempt at reducing our carbon footprint. Since a large portion of the US carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels, vegetable oils were introduced into gasoline. Implementing a renewable resource into our fuel would theoretically cut down the contribution to global warming.
Palm oil production is also said to have a positive impact on the local growing economies by providing approximately 6 million jobs.
Palm Oil Negatives
This oil seems like a miracle product, it can be used it multiple ways, energy efficient, affordable, and creating jobs, so what’s the problem?
The use of this oil is only increasing, which means expanding its plantations. This wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t currently bring grown in peatland filled rainforests. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that every hour of every day an area equivalent to approximately 300 football fields is cleared for palm oil production.
You might think the new trees they plant will just balance out the environmental impacts of the trees they are cutting down, but that is not the case. Rainforests are full of CO2 as the ground is made up of peatland.
Side Note: Peatland
Peatland is created by dead vegetation accumulating on the forest floor. Since there is a lack of oxygen in the wetlands, the dead plants can’t degrade. The vegetation builds up and compresses trapping the carbon from the plants. Peatlands actually hold so much carbon, they could eventually become coal deposits.
When these forests are cleared they are also burned, and the peatland releases 10 times more carbon emissions into the air than other forests. The burning of these forests is not only contributing to global warming at an alarming rate, but it is also killing and displacing the indigenous people that live in these areas. Over 100,000 people have died due to smoke inhalation as a direct result of burning these forests.
For the people that survive the clearings, they no longer have a home or source of food, medicine, and materials. The rainforest is also home to the world’s most diverse species of plants and animals, so clearing them is also killing the chance of finding their potential uses.
Multiple animals are now considered critically endangered thanks to our palm oil plantation expansions. 80% of the orangutan habitat has been destroyed, killing most of them in the process. The deforestation has also landed tigers, elephants, and rhinos on the critically endangered list through loss of habitat and poaching, which become much easier once the protection of the trees is gone.
What can we do about palm oil?
The million dollar question here is, “What can we do about it?” I personally do not want to support companies that are willingly destroying our planet and driving our animals into extinction.
There is a non-profit organization called the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that has brought together palm producers, buyers, and international non-governmental organizations to set standards for sustainable palm oil. They even created a certificate to indicate what products are using improved practices. I think this is a step in the right direction, however, there are a few issues with RSPO:
- Many producers of sustainable palm oil can’t indicate where the palm oil is being produced, and they can utilize the RSPO label before their plantations are actually examined.
- RSPO standards only forbid deforestation in “high conservation value areas,” a term that has no legal definition.
- Once a palm oil company has one plantation that meets the sustainability requirements, it is allowed to sell all its palm oil with the sustainable palm oil label, even when the other plantations are not sustainable.
- Even when inspections have found that a company has violated environmental or human rights regulations, it takes years before there are any repercussions for the company.
So RSPO sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t really maintain its promises.
Some of my research sources have indicated that boycotting palm oil all together would be worse for the environment because other vegetable oils use more land and energy with less yield. They assume that if everyone boycotted palm oil products, the companies would switch to a different oil. I personally do not agree. I believe companies would be much more likely to adjust their production process of the least expensive oil option than switch to a more expensive oil. The almighty dollar has a lot of power, and so do we as consumers.
I will be working towards replacing my products with palm oil free options and if enough consumers do the same, companies will realize we do no support their unjust practices. Where you spend your money determines who and what you are directly supporting.
Another option that I saw is to consume less overall. If we consume and purchase fewer products, less will need to be produced, and we will reduce our ecological footprint.