SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL
I’m sure everyone's heard the term ‘palm oil’ mentioned by now but you may not know what it is or why it is such an issue. Below we've tried to explain the problem and potential solutions.
Scroll down to the 'Recap: What Can We Do?' section at the bottom if you just want a brief summary of the actions you can take to help solve the problem.
WHAT IS PALM OIL?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil used in over half the day-to-day products found in supermarkets such as bread, biscuits, pizza, crisps, shampoo and lipstick.
Palm oil is used in these items for a number of reasons. It's used in bread because it's solid at room temperature and easy to bake with. It's used in soap because it can remove oil, dirt and moisturise. It's used in chocolate to prevent it from melting. It's used in margarine because it's solid at room temperature and contains no trans fats. The list goes on but the main point is it's extremely diverse and very cheap.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Masses of rainforest have been cut down in tropical parts of the world to make way for palm oil plantations; huge areas dedicated solely to growing row upon row of palm trees for their oil.
This creates a host of issues, the biggest being that it's taking away the homes of an array of wildlife such as orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers. These species, and so many others, can’t survive in areas filled only with palm trees; they need a diversity of plant species in order to survive. In the last 20 years almost 80% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed and shows few signs of stopping.
Another big issue is global warming. When rainforests are cleared for palm oil plantations, huge fires are often used to destroy them. In doing so this releases carbon dioxide not only from the trees but also from the peat which these forests often grow from. Peat forests store more carbon than any other ecosystem in the world. So when these forests are converted into a plantation, it has a huge negative impact on global warming.
These fires add even more destruction to wildlife. Not only are homes taken from these species but the animals themselves can get caught in the fires, reducing populations of what are already endangered species. This can be very traumatic for wildlife and can often separate animal families.
Child labour, exploitation of workers, air pollution, water pollution and soil erosion are all problems also linked to the palm oil industry. The WWF have put together a great info page if you want to know more.
Businesses also sneakily use different names for palm oil as the word has gotten such a bad reputation. If you're looking at the ingredients on the products you buy then watch out, palm oil can be renamed to any of the following - vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium kernelate, sodium palm kernelate, sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate, hyrated palm glycerides, etyl palmitate, octyl palmitate and palmityl alcohol.
The problem of palm oil is complex. It may seem easy to boycott it and use a different vegetable oil to solve the issue. This could be a solution for saving the species of these areas but the problem is far greater. The people in these countries have made jobs out of farming palm oil and it has taken millions out of poverty.
Palm oil is also the most sustainable vegetable oil to produce. If we were to switch to a different vegetable oil on a global scale it could do more damage to the world’s natural ecosystems than good. This is because palm produces up to nine times the amount of oil per hectare than alternative vegetable oils. So swapping to another vegetable crop would mean even larger areas would be cleared for different vegetable oils to be produced in other parts of the world. So what is the solution?
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Finding a way to keep using palm oil without cutting down more rainforest would be the best thing. There is palm oil sustainability certification out there. The RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) was formed in 2004. It has a production standard for companies to comply with in order to produce sustainable palm oil. If you see their logo shown below on products then you know they contain sustainable palm oil.
Chester Zoo have put together a list of brands currently using sustainable palm oil to make it easier for us to buy products with sustainable palm oil. We have power as consumers simply by the choices we make. Shifting to products that use sustainable palm oil sends out a clear message to companies.
Giki is an app which allows you to scan items in the supermarket using your smartphone to see whether or not they use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. This is a really great tool to use and also tells you other areas of items' sustainability such as whether the packaging is recyclable.
Switching our diets to more organic, fresh produce would be part of the solution too. If there was less demand for foods that require vegetable oil then less palm oil would need to be produced. Purchasing more food that is sourced locally is a great way to do this. That way it can be easier to find out what's going into it. Becoming more experimental with cooking is great too. If you source local, organic produce then it's easier to find out what's going into the food you are eating.
When it comes to cosmetic products making your own is another great way of knowing exactly what's inside them, it can also be more cost effective too! One Green Planet have put together a great list of tips for DIY Alternatives to Bath and Body Products.
Wellness Mama have come up with a great, natural laundry soap recipe to replace laundry detergents which contain palm oil.
If deforestation were to stop for palm oil then a lot of work would still need to be done to amend the crisis it has already left wildlife in. Reforestation work is already under way but not currently at a rate that can save some critically endangered wildlife. Serious work needs to be done to allow many species to thrive again. Supporting a charity is a great way to give something back, after all the UK is up there with the biggest palm oil-consuming nations. There are plenty of charities out there and some are focused on conserving a specific endangered species, such as the Orangutan Foundation.
Eco-tourism is another way in which we can help the situation. Southeast Asia is a fantastic part of the world to travel to and volunteering is a great way to do so. There are plenty of organisations out there that offer a range of volunteering projects. Choose carefully, look through the information thoroughly and don't be afraid to ask questions. You want to know that if you are giving your time up that it's actually going to be beneficial to the issues you are trying to help with.
Sustainable palm oil seems like the best solution to this complex problem at the moment. It may well be difficult to maintain if the demand for it continues to increase. As the population goes up, and the popularity of palm oil in products increases, alternatives may well have to be used when land runs out. For the time being opting for sustainable palm oil seems to be the best solution.
RECAP: WHAT CAN WE DO?
Try and only buy products which use sustainable palm oil.
Contact companies to see if the products you use contain sustainable palm oil, if they don't try urging them to switch to it.
Use the Giki app to scan items in the supermarket using your smartphone to see whether or not they use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.
Try and avoid processed foods containing palm oil and other vegetable oils.
Try and make your own cosmetic and cleaning products to avoid using palm oil or vegetable oils.
Share what you have learnt with others.
Consider supporting reforestation/conservation projects in affected areas.
Try an eco-tourism holiday helping with reforestation in Southeast Asia.