Easter is a good time to look at the impact of palm oil on the environment, and how, we as consumers can think about how we can consider how our choices can benefit the rainforests and wildlife that suffer as a result of unsustainable industry practise.
We do not call for an all out boycott of palm oil, rather an industry that is better regulated and does not devastate virgin rainforest.
It’s especially important to tigers and their prey, whose wild populations cannot thrive in oil palm plantations.
In the last 10 years palm oil production has more than doubled.
More than 50 million metric tons of palm oil are produced every year.
A typical consumer goes through about 6kg of palm oil a year.
1.5 million hectares of land have been approved for palm oil development in Liberia, Cameroon and Gabon alone.
50% of packaged products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil.
Over 85%of the world’s palm oil is produced by Indonesia and Malaysia.
There is evidence that oil palm was being cultivated around 5000 years ago in West Africa. There is further evidence to show it was used by the Egyptians, suggesting Palm oil as a traded commodity even then.
In the 1800s, driven by a need from the Industrial Revolution, palm oil was first imported into Europe.
In the early 1900s brands such as Unilever first started using palm oil in their hygiene and cosmetic manufacturing process.
Though the oil palm is indigenous to Africa, over 90% of global production now happens right across Indonesia and Malaysia.
It’s not just big business that profits from palm oil, small land holders account for around 40% of exports. This makes it one of the major employers in South East Asia.
It’s a very efficient crop. 50% of the ripe fruit is oil and uses 5/10 x LESS land than comparable crops like soy.
It is perfect for cooking and food products as it is light, and flavourless and can be used for a number of purposes, in a variety of forms. It has a particularly high resistance to oxidisation, which in lay terms means it has a long shelf life and makes it ideal for those living in hot climates.
It is not just useful in food production, it is used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents and in the production of greases, lubricants and candles. More recently, the biofuels market has provided a significant new non-food use for palm oil where it is used as the feedstock for the production of biodiesel and as an alternative to mineral oils for use in power stations.
The fatty acid derivatives and extracts of palm oil are used in the production of bactericides, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and water-treatment products.
In a word, deforestation.
Palm oil concessions (both of small and large landholders) have been getting away with unsustainable agricultural practises over the last decade.
“Slash and burn” has been the typical technique of clearing rainforest in order to make way for plantations. In Sumatra, there is a huge problem with this method. Much of the forest lies on peat heavy land, so fires burn uncontrollably, not just at land level, but underground where high levels of carbon ensure that fires are nigh on impossible to extinguish.
Annually, this causes a horrific haze, toxic smog that annually causes humanitarian issues as far as Singapore, where citizens are now realising the deadly effects of this unsustainable farming culture.
To protect the environment and save precious biodiversity we want no more clearing of peat land or building on sites of high conservation value. While many companies have pledged zero deforestation along their supply chain, major organisations such as PEPSICO have consistently failed to live up to their promises to do so (see Rainforest Action Network or Greenpeace to find latest information and petitions to the worst offenders).
We as consumers do have the power to force change. We have the buying power. We answer with our wallets and our voices. While it requires you as a consumer to research the products you buy – it is worth the small amount of time and effort it takes to read into a company’s history. Opting to only use sustainably sourced palm oil may be a bit of a pain – but for the sake of our planet it is a worthwhile investment.
I have attended a number of symposiums run by the RSPO (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) where we had the opportunity to talk to both producers and manufacturers, who have cited that their only incentive for becoming sustainable is consumer demand. This is especially true in small scale producers who feel the financial impact of moving to a transparent and sustainable supply chain.
If the population continues to grow, so will our need for more oil. If we don’t act now we could cause irreversible damage to the planet.