The palm oil industry – an introduction to the environmental disaster.

Until recently, I had no idea about the environmental issues associated with palm oil, but with 10 million tons produced each year, it is something that needs to be addressed. I had seen palm oil on ingredients lists, but didn’t know how the mass use of the product negatively effects the planet.

What is Palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible oil that comes from the pulp of the palm fruits grown on the African Palm Tree. Palm oil is grown through Africa, Asia, North and South America with Malaysia and Indonesia also being large producers. Palm oil is relatively low in cost to produce and can be used in many ways, hence its high demand.

palm fruits

Where is palm oil used?

This was a big surprise to me. The answer is everywhere. Palm oil is used in up to 40- 50% of consumer goods, from make- up, cleaning products to fuel and food. It really is everywhere. 66 million tons are used annually, half of  all palm oil imported into the EU is for bio-fuel. (I know this is confusing as bio-fuel is generally seen as a good thing!) A increasing trade is the palm- kernels being used for meal for animals on intensive meat farms- Another major issue that needs addressing and one I plan to explore further.

Why is palm oil use a problem?

This is a biggie. Due to the high demand for the low cost crop, palm oil and the subsequent growth of palm oil plantations, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, has meant mass deforestation and the destruction of the natural habitat for many endangered species. Orangutans, elephants and tigers are among the most severally effected. When a wild animals natural habitat is destroyed it leaves them little choice but to encroach on indigenous villages, often causing destruction to housing and small holdings. The villagers mostly do not want harm or frighten the animals, but when it is a choice between their home and their livelihood, they have little choice but to take action. Currently orangutans could become extinct within the next 10 years. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed.

Another major factor is the impact palm oil production has on climate change largely through the level of carbon dioxide which is produced when these jungle areas are cleared and wood is unnecessarily burned. Not to mention the reduction in natural foliage to absorb natural CO2 in the atmosphere. The clearing of the native forests can also cause landslides and flooding when the tree root network is disrupted and the ground structure and soil is disturbed. Palm oil plantations also effect indigenous people of the area. Many people have been forced from their homes due to forest clearing. Plantations often have a positive spin by creating jobs for local people, however often they are forced to work in them due to their agricultural land being forcibly taken away from them, and the working conditions in the plantations are often poorly regulated.

palm tree forest

Sustainable Palm oil- is that a real thing?

In 2004, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil was established to try and control the deforestation created through palm oil production. The RSPO tries to ensure global standards are adhered to along the whole supply chain of palm oil production, as well as monitoring the ethical, environmental and social impacts of palm oil production. Have a look at RSPO.org for more information. Many big users such as Tesco’s and Cadbury’s are members, but although it is undoubtedly taking steps to improve the industry, some people feel that is green washing the problem and encourages growth of the industry rather than slowing it down.

What can we do to tackle the problem?

Until demand for low cost, mas produce products slows, and the big manufactures take a stronger stance on the palm oil production chain, it is a very hard issue to effectively address. Talking about the issue and raising awareness is the easiest and probably most effective action we can do to help. A quick look around the supermarket shelves is a real eye opener and I would bet, quite shocking to most consumers who have any interest in the environment. Home cooking and buying less processed foods that contain it will help lessen your use, and choosing suppliers that use sustainable palm oil will help, although cutting it out all together is the best option.

orangutan

The palm oil issue is a huge and complicated matter with many factors to consider. Environmental, animal and humanitarian welfare are all negatively effected with far to many points to cover in a single blog post. Below are some sites I used to help put this together, please have a read and try to do your bit to help.

www.ran.org/palm_oil

www.saynotopalmoil.com

www.rainforest-rescue.org

Next time you are in the supermarket, have a look on the shelves, it won’t take you long to find it.

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