What’s the Deal on Palm Oil?

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the African oil palm. The majority (85%) of palm oil is harvested in Malaysia and Indonesia, an area within 10 degrees north and south of the equator where the most ideal growing conditions are found. The popularity of palm oil has increased dramatically over the past 30 years with over 50 million tonnes being produced annually. Palm oil is one of the most inexpensive oils to reproduce, plus it is a high yielding crop and is incredibly versatile – over 50% of products found on supermarket shelves contain palm oil or a derivative, where it can be found in anything from processed foods to cosmetics and cleaning products.

What’s the big deal?

The UN Environment Programme estimates that 98% of Indonesian forest may be destroyed in the next 7 years due to mass deforestation to make way for new palm oil plantations.

An area around the size of 300 football fields are cleared every hour to make way for these plantations globally.

The process of clearing these forests creates more than 140 million tonnes of CO2, that’s 15% of all human-made CO2 emissions.

Tropical rainforests are some of the world’s most critical carbon storage systems and can absorb as much as one third of all CO2  emissions, therefore the destruction of these rainforests is a massive contributor to climate change.

A heartbreaking estimation is that an Orangutan is killed every 2 hours due to the deforestation and removal of their habitat. Nearly 50% of Orangutan population has been lost in just 10 years, driving the species further towards extinction. The Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant also face extreme threats of extinction.

The social impacts of palm oil production include the displacement of communities, loss of livelihood, poverty,  and conflicts over land. In 2012, over 600 major land conflicts on palm oil plantations were recorded in Indonesia alone. Human rights abuses and poor employment conditions within the industry are not uncommon.

So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.

What’s being done?

Thankfully, it is possible to produce palm oil sustainably, although currently there is just not enough demand for it in order to make the crucial changes in the industry towards sustainable palm oil. Currently, the best regulator of the industry is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), founded in 2004 with the aim to protect the environment, wildlife and local community rights. The ideal outcome would be for companies to invest in 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), you can see the differences between sustainable and unsustainable palm oil production below:

Sustainable Palm Oil
  • Creates fair conditions for workers, small-scale suppliers and local communities
  • Develops new plantations on existing cleared land
  • Conserves natural resources and wildlife.
Unsustainable Palm Oil
  • Illegally clears rainforests and national park land, displacing animal species and communities that rely on these forests for their survival
  • Results in mono-culture plantations, reducing biodiversity
  • Exploits workers, small-scale suppliers and local communities.

Unfortunately, many companies who claim to use sustainable palm oil, aren’t 100% committed to using 100% CSPO. At this stage, a global standard of regulations need to be enforced for palm oil plantations and companies to commit to 100% sustainable palm oil.

What can I do?

We as the consumers have the power to demand that palm oil used in products is being produced in a sustainable way. The actions and habits we make in our everyday purchase decisions can go a long way in making sure that the industry gets the message – no more unsustainable palm oil! The dream would be for the majority of companies to commit to 100% sustainable palm oil (Nutella did, woohoo!) and for there to be mandatory labelling of sustainable palm oil on packaging. In the meantime, here are some tips for you to be a conscious consumer and make informed choices in regards to palm oil.

  • Eat whole foods and avoid processed foods – consuming as much fresh and organic fruit, vegetables, nuts, meats and dairy not only keeps your mind and body nourished, it’s also a good way to explore your local farmer’s market and whole food stores
  • Check labels – choose products that contain clearly labelled oils or check to see if palm oil is listed in the ingredients – this can be difficult as palm oil can be sneakily listed as over 170 other names, however the benefits outweigh the time spent to check labels
  • Check the saturated fat percentage – if it is over 40% fat, it is most likely palm oil
  • Use Google – ahh the good ol’ internet, a quick search on a product can help you distinguish whether a product is palm oil free, or what alternatives are out there
  • Choose palm oil free alternatives – be informed and choose wisely every time you shop
  • Encourage conversation – Spread the word to friends and family and inspire them to adopt conscious consuming habits in their own households. Contact manufacturers via social media and support campaigns rallying for better standards in the palm oil industry. Real change starts with the individual and we have the power to make a difference through our every day actions.

A New Leaf Project is optimistic that making simple changes in our everyday can go a long way to helping put a stop to the dependency on unsustainable palm oil. Follow A New Leaf Project for inspiration on how you can make conscious consuming and sustainable living a project in your life. Don’t forget to support #PalmOilFreeFriday by filling out the weekly form to help you reflect on your conscious consumer habits.

This info was found from:

Downloadable version: What’s the Deal on Palm Oil?

By Chelsea W | A New Leaf Project

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