What’s the problem with palm oil?

Palm OilPalm oil has hit the news lately when a supermarket advert was banned for being too political.

The advert ‘There’s an Orangutan in my Bedroom’, used with permission but originally made by Greenpeace, clearly links palm oil with rainforest destruction.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. Its properties make it highly versatile in the food and chemical industries. It is estimated to be in half of all supermarket products! This includes a high proportion of our foods (such as baked goods – including almost everything Christmas related, think mince pie to yule log, plus chocolate, ice cream, noodles, spreads and nut butters), many soaps and cleaning products, and even dog food! It is also used as a biofuel. Fresh palm oil is thought to have some health benefits but the oil used in the foods we buy is oxidised (processed) and so is no longer good for us. It contains roughly the same amount of saturated fat as butter.

Oil palms originate from Western Africa where they were usually grown in small holdings with other crops. However, the palms can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant and due to the huge demand for the oil, they are now grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America.

Why is it a problem?

Rainforest are often cleared or peatland areas drained to make way for large scale, monoculture oil palm plantations. 85% of all palm oil is produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are among the world’s most species-rich environments and home to numerous endangered plants and animals including orangutans, which are particularly vulnerable because they are dependent on large forest areas. Oil palm plantations also threaten forest peoples. A single plantation can destroy the forests, watersheds, and forest resources of thousands of Indonesians, leaving entire forest communities to face poverty. In addition, as rainforests are the earth’s largest sinks of carbon, safely storing greenhouse gases, tropical deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change.

What can we do?

The damage caused is so well reported that one cannot in good conscience buy products containing un-certified palm oil, so we have two choices; try to avoid it all together, or choose only the most sustainable, certified sources we can.

It is possible that boycotting palm oil on a massive scale may just shift the problem.* Oil palms produce more oil per hectare than other plant oil sources. The next highest yielding vegetable oil crop (rapeseed) needs four times as much land. Soya and coconut, which are used in palm oil free products, use ten times more land. Soya is linked to huge areas of deforestation in the Amazon.

There are certification schemes to which less damaging palm oil producers can sign up. However, we do need to campaign for the certifications to be made more environmentally rigorous, as they still have failings; even the most widely respected, RSPO, currently allows secondary forests to be cleared and peatlands drained. The certification needs to be strong as even if the UK stopped using palm oil, worldwide demand is huge and many consumers have limited options to avoid it. Research is underway into new alternative oil sources, such as algae and yeasts, but these are a long way from market.

When shopping we can avoid heavily-processed foods as that is where palm oil is mostly used; these foods are also generally not good for us! Home baking is a good way to avoid both palm oil and artificial ingredients.

We can also choose toiletries which specifically state they contain no palm oil.

Be aware though, palm oil is not always clearly listed on ingredients, see an alternative name list here: www.worldwildlife.org

A list of products which are palm oil free, or only contain certified sustainable or organic palm oil can be found here:www.ethicalconsumer.org.

Traidcraft sources its palm oil from small-scale farmers in Ghana who are working with nature rather than destroying it. By focusing on smallholder farmers and low-tech processing, benefits go to some of the poorest farmers in West Africa. Further information is available at www.traidcraft.co.uk.

Best wishes for a happy, home-baked, Christmas!

Clare Taylor and Alison Riggs
St. Luke’s Environment Officers

* Pers. comm. a contact doing a PhD on palm oil production in Borneo.

Further information:

Palm oil may appear in ingredients lists as:
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, or Palmityl Alcohol.

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