Why You Should Be Looking Out For (And Avoiding) Palm Oil.
You’ve likely consumed palm oil recently. It’s ok, but you should know a few things. It’s an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm free, and it’s a “productive crop”, meaning it has a large yield relative to its cost of production when compared to other vegetable oils. It’s versatile, inexpensive, and has a long shelf life, which makes it a popular alternative in food, cosmetics, and biofuel. The problem: Palm tree derivatives are tragically unsustainable - they are responsible for 40% of deforestation (one of the leading causes), up to 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, and with +66 million tons being produced every year, the problem is not slowing down.
It’s seriously bad. This ends up destroying the habitats of already endangered species like elephants, tigers, and orangutans. It also leads to other issues, like indigenous rights abuses, modern day slavery, climate change, and poaching/smuggling. over 50,000 orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have died because of palm oil deforestation - they head into villages in search of food and are then often killed directly.
Hidden Palm Oil: You might notice a products ingredient list includes any of the following: palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm fruit, or maybe something else. These different names sometimes refer to different parts of the oil palm tree (which can affect the nutritional content of the final ingredient), but all refer to a product that has the same harmful effect on the environment, as they all come from palm trees, and are oils in some form. It can also be listed under “sodium laureth”. And unfortunately in some countries like Australia, it’s often just labeled as “vegetable oil” - something you can dig into by looking at the nutrition facts - if the saturated fat is right around 50% from the fat in your product, it’s likely palm oil. It’s also in lots of non-dairy alternatives, breads, nut butters, and more, like Earth Balance and Justins.
What about sustainable palm oil? What is sustainable palm oil? It’s monitored by an organization called the RSPO, that verifies that it doesn’t come from a forest that supports significant life, fragile ecosystems, or cultural communities. Sustainable palm oil is really not an answer. It’s a work around that is excessively abused. From 2001 to 2016, total tree loss in Indonesian palm oil concessions was 34% of the area covered by plantations - loss from certified sustainable ones? Even higher: 38%.
The metrics around village poverty, animal decline, and other effects, are not evidenced as better for sustainably sourced palm oil. The RSPO, the organization established to certify products with sustainably grown palm oil, has vague criteria, minimal punishment for those who breach them, and is largely controlled by the industry. And, in order to hold this status, a farm has no obligation to not continue to expand their plantation - in order to do this, most farmers have to burn forest land, as it’s the most cost effective method, which leads to larger, widespread fires. Sustainable demand has also placed pressure on countries like Indonesia to expand their oil palm plantations by clearing huge areas of old-growth (and seriously irreplaceable) rainforest to make way for these special plantations. It happens often, and it’s often illegal. All palm oil production is affecting the environment at startling rates.
What should I do? We aren’t asking you to boycott palm oil. The industry employs many, many people in third world countries. But, these people are being sucked into an industry because the product is in high demand, and only a change in demand can change the supply and production. There are endless alternatives to palm oil, both naturally occurring as well as man-made, and it’s up to you to determine how much you want to decrease your consumption by.