Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from the African oil palm. 90% of the palm oil we consume is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia and unsustainable production is wreaking havoc on the environment and contributing to climate change. With the UK potentially looking at boosting imports, we look at the arguments for and against producing the controversial oil.
Against: It really isn’t that good for you.
Palm oil contains 7g of saturated fat per tablespoon compared to sunflower oil which contains just 1.8g and olive oil which contains 1.9g. And when you consider that palm oil is in almost half of products sold at the supermarket, that really adds up.
For: It is possible to produce palm oil in a sustainable way
The palm oil industry, when done right, can provide an income for thousands of local people in developing countries. In 2003 the first meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) took place in Malaysia. The RSPO now has over 3,000 members who represent every part of the chain of palm oil production. Their mission is to try and make sustainable palm oil production the norm though partnering with local farmers and multinational companies alike.
Against: Unsustainable farming is terrible for the environment and is contributing to climate change.
It has already caused deforestation on a huge scale as forests are burned to clear the land for palm oil farmers. Not only does this release high levels of carbon dioxide and black carbon into the atmosphere, it causes mass air pollution as was seen in Singapore in 2013.
For: Palm oil is effective and therefore cheaper to produce.
Palm oil is much more effective to produce than its vegetable oil counterparts as more oil can be extracted from each plant. This means that farmers can sell at a lower price as they can produce more per hectare of land. Palm oil also extends the shelf life of a food product which is vital in today’s market.
Against: It is decreasing biodiversity
As you would expect, burning down trees isn’t great for the animals that live in them. Palm oil production is threatening species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears and clouded leopards which only exist in Borneo. These are some of the most exquisite but now rare animals on the planet.
What can I do?
There is a lot of debate as to what is the best course of action for consumers.
Many choose to boycott Palm Oil completely. It’s likely that this will lead to your weekly shop (including your toiletries, not just food!) looking quite different as palm oil is found in so many products. However, if you make all your meals from scratch it is quite possible to avoid palm oil. However, critics say that this is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ as it means sustainable palm oil production is not being supported.
There’s the trickier option of buying products only from RSPO registered companies using sustainable palm oil. We say trickier as palm oil can often be hidden on packaging, even given different names. However, with some research, it can be done! That having been said, there are some who say that the standards the RSPO set out are not easily policed. Meaning that some chains of production which claim to be sustainable may actually not be.
However you chose to approach the issue, the most important thing is that as consumers we become more aware of what is in the products we buy. Afterall, the customer is king!
The role of the UK government
Finally, last week we featured an article on our social media which claimed that the UK government wants to make a deal which would increase palm oil imports which are linked to deforestation. This would be truly devastating for the communities, animals, and ecosystems which are already under so much threat. It is so important that as consumers, and citizens, we tell our local MPs and elected officials that we do not agree with this.
Let us know in the comments if you are planning to change the way you shop or maybe you already avoid palm oil?
If you want to see some of the animals we mentioned in action, you can join Kaya’s project in Indonesia. Working with sun bears, orangutans, and many other species; this project aims to fight the illegal wildlife trade and release as many animals back into the wild as possible. It is a great way to gain an understanding of animal welfare and the struggle facing wildlife conservation organizations in the region.