The World’s demand for Palm Oil in 2019…
Welcome to my first blog post of 2019!
My aim with my blog posts isn’t necessarily to post everyday, or even every week. The reason I wanted to start blogging is for two reasons. 1). To post blogs of my adventures, trips and outdoor life and 2). To post thought-provoking blog posts about environmental and also some humanitarian issues that I am interested in. I am not here to preach or tell people how to live their lives. I am merely here to try to raise awareness of certain issues that I feel passionate about.
Before Christmas, I wrote a post about plastic and ideas on how to reduce plastic consumption during the Christmas season, and I had a lot of positive feedback from family and friends, so thank you to anyone who took the time to read my post and tried any of the suggestions. This next post is again on an environmental issue which I wasn’t particularly aware of until very recently, and so I decided to do some more research into it. The subject for this post is: Palm Oil.
In 2018, I started taking much more notice and interest in what I was eating. It actually started when I went to the dentist after a long, and I mean a long period avoiding it. I needed fillings, and more than a couple, and that was my initial wake-up call. I then started cutting out sugar, predominantly cereals, fizzy drinks and sweets. I was also making a conscious effort to regularly check the sugar content of anything else that I was buying. I managed pretty well, and haven’t touched a fizzy drink since, or bought any packs of sweets (although I have very occasionally, and I do genuinely mean very occasionally – had the odd jelly baby or Haribo sweet). However, I was surprised with how little I missed them.This has now led me into a natural instinct of looking at the ingredients of the products I am buying, especially if buying them for the first time. I am still not eating anywhere near as much sugar as I used too, and my teeth are in a good way now. So that was a success of 2018!
Not long before Christmas, I was hearing and reading stories about an ingredient called Palm Oil, and it was actually the Iceland / Greenpeace Ad, the one that was banned from our TV screens that got me thinking more about this. If you haven’t watched the ad, I recommend you do as even though my personal trust in supermarkets and their campaigns is shaky at best, it is a good basic introduction into the destructiveness that can be caused by the demand for palm oil.
Palm Oil is a vegetable oil, and originally comes from the fruit that grows on the African oil palm tree in tropical rainforests. It is similar to sunflower and rapeseed oil. Nowadays, it is also being grown in Asia and The Americas. It is cropping up in everyday products more than people (I think) realise. It is used in foods and cosmetics, to cleaning products and fuels. On a human health aspect, palm oil is regarded by some to be bad for your health, in particular your cardiovascular health due to its high saturated fat content. However, there are also arguments that counter that opinion, so that side of the debate continues on. My main focus is on the environmental consequences behind the demand for the oil.
The main environmental issue surrounding palm oil is that massive areas of rainforest are being cut down to produce it. This is happening because the trees are growing too large, and the taller and taller they get, the harder and harder it becomes to harvest their fruits due the height. So, what is happening is that these trees are being burned down (deforestation) in order for people to clear these areas where they can then set up manmade plantations that are more manageable and more create a more effective production process – often illegally. This deforestation also releases huge amount of carbon emissions into the earth’s atmosphere, having a significant contribution towards climate change. The production of Palm Oil is estimated to have been responsible for around 8% of the world’s deforestation between the years of 1990 and 2008.
Due to the incredibly high demand for the oil across the planet, large expanses of rainforest are being deforested. This deforestation is destroying acres and acres of wildlife habit, most notably for the world’s population of Orangutans. It is estimated that over the last two decades, 100,000 Orangutans have died as a direct result of this deforestation. Other animals who also use the rainforest in certain parts of the world, such as elephants and tigers are also being extremely affected. There are also suggestions that the industry is heavy on child labour and exploitation of workers, although I have done less research into this so am unable to expand on this issue further at the moment. There are also reported land conflicts between indigenous people and the palm oil industry.
Why is there such a demand for palm oil? One of the main reasons is that it is semi-solid when at room temperature, which means that it can keep product likes spreads, spreadable. It is also used in order to give products a longer shelf-life. Another use is in products that are fried in order to give them a crunchy texture. Finally, it is also odourless and colourless, so it won’t affect the appearance or smell of any products. Other countries around the world also use it as a cooking oil, although it is much less common to use it for that purpose here in the UK.
In 2004, something called the RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) was formed. The RSPO sets out to monitor the production of palm oil and sets out both environmental and social criteria which companies need to adhere to in order to be recognised as producing ‘Certified Sustainable Palm Oil’. When these criteria are fully applied, its hope is that it will minimise the effects of palm oil production.
Globally palm oil constitutes 35% of the world vegetable oil and is therefore a highly sought after product. Not only this, but the area that is needed to grow the oil is less than other oils. To harvest more coconut oil for example, at least four times more land would be required than palm oil, therefore making palm oil more practical, and would also have knock-on consequences in finding the additional land required. On top of that, palm oil is a critical source of GDP for a lot of third world or poorer countries, and there are a huge amount of farmers who rely on it as their source of income and livelihood. So to completely eradicate it would only have negative consequences in other ways. The issue is not the palm oil itself so much, but more about sustainably sourcing it and controlling the demand for it so that deforestation doesn’t have to happen, and that our demand for it doesn’t come at the expense of other species that we share our world with.
The demand for palm oil is only expected to increase and increase. However, in the UK the government has set out to commit to making 100% of the palm oil used and sold in the UK to be sourced only from sustainable sources. As of 2016, the figure stood at 78%, which isn’t a bad effort, however, it does mean that there is more that can be done. I also personally feel that products need to be labelled much more effectively and clearer here in the UK, and that is probably the same in other countries as well. We have to assume rightly or wrongly for now at least, that any product containing palm oil that is on our shelves probably isn’t from a sustainable or certified source, unless it contains a RSPO logo or another label stating its certification. In 2014, an EU law was introduced which stated that products now had to state what exact vegetables oils were used in the product. Previously, packaging only had to state ‘Vegetable Oils’ without giving any more specifics.
Some of the regular items with palm oil in them can include: Pizzas, bread, detergents, soaps, margarine, some chocolate, ice creams, cookies and biscuits. This is only a short list, and there are other products that could be added to the list. Some of these products may well be from sustainable sources, and if they are labelled as so, then you should feel confident that they are from a sustainable and reliable source and that no rainforest or animal has been displaced or destroyed for that product.
While palm oil isn’t an ingredient that will necessarily disappear, at least not anytime soon, we can make sure that the products we buy that contain palm oil are from a sustainable and certified source as best we can. The palm oil itself isn’t the main issue, the issue simply surrounds the sourcing of the oil, and ensuring that it is produced sustainably. My biggest piece of advice if you are interested about this issue is to simply read product ingredients carefully and check for sustainable labels (RSPO etc).