Is Palm Oil Bad For The Environment?
The production of palm oil for use in food, cosmetics and other products is a controversial problem - but is palm oil bad for the environment?
Environmentalists say vast areas of forest are destroyed for palm oil plantations, which contributes to climate change: carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions from forest fires, etc.
On the other hand, palm oil production boosts economies in developing countries - and it can be produced sustainably.
The Palm Oil Debate
Before we start, I would just like to make the observation that there are a lot of articles and blog posts on this subject. The trouble is they are often written by those with the most to gain from one side of the debate.
On one side, you will find companies that offer an alternative to palm oil. Their message is always "avoid palm oil it's bad! (p.s. buy our product instead)".
On the other side, you have those that suggest there are no problems with palm oil production and "what's all the fuss about? Keep buying our products blindly, consumers!".
I heard a smart and amusing saying years ago, which compares every situation to a slice of bread:
"No matter how thin you slice it, there are always two sides!"
My approach to writing this article is just that. I will try to address both the good and the bad, albeit simplified, and offer my personal opinion at the end. But is just my opinion :)
WHAT IS PALM OIL?
Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) is the most widely used vegetable oil-based food and product additive on the planet. Palm oil comes from the fruit of palm oil trees that grow in tropical climates.
Native to Africa, a single oil palm crop can yield up to one-third more oil than crops like rapeseed oil, olive oil, coconut oil and corn.
Surprisingly, palm oil is also cleaner and more sustainable, since it needs fewer chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This makes palm oil a green and efficient crop.
WHAT IS PALM OIL USED FOR?
Palm oil is the most widely-used vegetable oil additive, found in the ingredient lists of around 50% of the processed foods and household products we buy.
Everything from shampoo and soap to bread and biscuits to lipstick, cooking oil and laundry detergent contain palm oil.
However, the environmental impact of palm kernel oil continues to be a hot topic of debate. Since palm oil is one of the natural ingredients we use in some of our authentic French soaps, we thought we would address these concerns.
Palm Oil Industry Controversy
Oil palm is originally native to Africa but vast numbers of those trees have now been cleared. Today, 85% of the world's palm oil is produced in Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia and Indonesia.
It's estimated that 300 football fields of forest areas are cleared for palm oil plantations every hour, and not all land-clearing is done legally or responsibly.
Irresponsible clearing contributes to climate change as it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also displaces indigenous communities and puts wildlife, especially endangered species, at risk of extinction.
It is important to remember that when farmed with integrity, palm oil is a far more sustainable crop than all other vegetable oils.
"Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut, or sunflower oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats, species and communities. Furthermore, there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihoods. Boycotting palm oil is not the answer. Instead, we need to demand more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster." wwf.org.uk
So What's The Solution?
Demand for palm oil is predicted to double over the next five years. Environmental organisations are fighting to reduce further impact on the ecosystems and indigenous communities where palm fruit is grown.
Organisations from around the globe have joined forces to put systems in place to ensure the palm oil industry are farming on previously cleared land. Or a land area that does not require deforestation.
A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is leading this initiative, partnering with the WWF, Greenpeace, the United Nations, and Asia's largest oilseed processing companies and organisations such as Wilmar International and United Plantations.
Together, they're working to ensure oil palm trees are farmed on land that has been previously cleared or doesn't require deforestation.
A few significant strides have been made thus far:
In 2013, Wilmar International signed a 100 per cent zero-deforestation agreement. Since Asia is where most of the tropical forests and oil palm trees are cut down, this was a significant step in the right direction.
The following year, the European Union made it mandatory for product labels to clearly state if palm oil is present, not just the all-encompassing "vegetable oil".
A certification process has been put in place, and many global companies have committed to purchasing from oil palm plantations which meet the strict guidelines for sustainable farming. Just look for the RSPO or Greenpeace label.
Palm oil producers in tropical climates which are conducive to palm oil fruit farming are expanding their crops on already cleared land.
All this will help slow the rate of deforestation and discourage farmers in the palm oil sector from using irresponsible production methods.
Should We Boycott All Palm Oil?
All of the above have already slowed the rate of deforestation, as well as the revenue stream for irresponsible oil palm tree farmers.
So should we be trying to eliminate these products from our homes and boycotting palm oil supply? No - as this would have a significant impact on the economies of those countries producing palm oil.
Alternatively, we, as consumers, should pledge to only buying products from companies that are committed to sourcing their palm oil responsibly. Then actually, you will be using one of the most sustainable oil crops in the world.
To be sure you are buying a sustainable product, just look for the RSPO or Green Palm Label.
As we don't have labels on our bar soaps, The Natural French Soap Company ensures all of our palm oil is sustainably certified.
Just to recap, some people advocate entirely, not to use palm oil for ethical, environmental and even commercial reasons.
On the flip side, some support palm oil use for the value it gives to the economic development of smaller poorer countries, in South West Africa, (Gabon, etc.) and South East Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), through trade.
I think there is a solution for both arguments. We need to encourage the sound farming practices for palm oil cultivation mentioned above. That way we can all use this precious oil without further forest loss and without harming our planet or its inhabitants in any way. What do you think? Please leave your comments or questions below.
Still not convinced? Take a look at this excellent article from The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
I hope you found this article useful and if you did, you know what to do. Please be kind and share it with the world using the sustainable social media share buttons below. :)