Palm oil: the effects, dangers and how you can avoid it
What is palm oil? Basically palm oil is a cheap, easy-to-produce oil that is found in 50% of products in your local supermarket. The reason palm oil is so popular compared to other similar vegetable oils like olive, soybean or coconut is because palm oil is more productive per acre than an other similar oil. This high yield makes it very popular with companies who want to maximize their profits whilst spending as little money as possible. Palm oil also has special properties that make it attractive for the food industry to use. Every year over 66 million tonnes of the stuff is produced all over the world. Between 1962 and 1982 global exports of palm oil increased from around half a million to 2.4 million tonnes annually and in 2008 world production of palm oil amounted to 48 million tonnes (today 66 million tonnes). According to FAO forecasts by 2020 the global demand for palm oil will double, and will triple by 2050. Palm oil is found in everything from sweets, makeup, ‘pre-prepared’ and instant food, soaps and shampoos, biofuels and even detergents.
(Palm oil fruit harvest in Malaysia © Craig Morey)
Names of Palm Oil:
Palm oil is disguised under lots of different names, before 2014 it wasn’t necessary in the EU to label palm oil but a law created in December 2014 made labelling of palm oil in the ingredients a legal requirement, instead of labelling it as ‘vegetable oil.’ Here are some of the names palm oil is hidden under:
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, Palmityl Alcohol. All of these are derived from palm oil. In many cosmetics you can’t tell if they contain palm oil as ingredient listing is not mandatory, but you can check with the use of a palm oil identification app, which is available for free on your App Store. Other ways to avoid palm oil in your life are mentioned in the ‘How You Can Help’ section.
Palm Oil and the Environment:
The huge demand for palm oil needs a huge area for plantations to produce the palm. Oil palm plantations grow best in the tropics along the equator. This has led to unimaginably vast areas of pristine rainforest in places like Borneo, Sumatra and Indonesia being cleared for a monoculture of oil palm that spreads for hundreds of miles. This is despite the fact that 20 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land is appropriate for the establishment of oil palm plantations in Indonesia alone. Planters feel that it is more expensive to plant in grasslands or in degraded areas because they will have to add so much more chemical fertilizer. The cost of clearing forests is subsidised from the sale of timber from concession areas. Oil palm plantations have even been created illegally within a number of different protected areas.
The amount that palm oil plantations now cover is impossible to comprehend – an area the size of New Zealand (or 66 million acres). Rainforests and human settlements have been cleared and replaced by ‘green deserts’ of oil palm that have practically no biodiversity. And the amount of forest that is being cut down every hour? 300 football fields worth. That is 7,200 football fields of pristine rainforest being destroyed every single day, along with all the countless endemic or endangered species, species that haven’t even been documented yet.
(Guatemala palm oil worker)
The damage caused to the environmental by clearing rainforest for palm oil development – clearing one hectare (about two square acres) of peat forest can release 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Over 10 million hectares of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland-based forests have been cleared. As a consequence, Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of palm oil – temporarily surpassed the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1% of the earth’s surface, but produce over 4% of global carbon emissions. Every year huge wildfires burn out of control across the peatland-based rainforests and can end up burning villages and anything else that is in the way. The resulting haze can last for months at a time and can be seen from space. The smog can stunt or kill crops and causes health problems for thousands of people each year.
As rainforests are cleared, animals are forced into smaller and smaller pockets of forest. In the process of clearing the land; animals are killed by the logging or are burnt by fires and killed by the smoke. Animals such as orangutans have also been found buried alive and killed by machetes, guns and other weapons. Palm oil development also allows poachers easy access to rainforest, further endangering already endangered animals. Animals that have become endangered because of palm oil include the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard, Proboscis Monkey and Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan. In the last 20 years over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed.
One of the products that palm oil is grown for is biofuel and biodiesel (a form of biofuel). Biofuel is basically a alternative to the conventional fuel that is most commonly used, that is derived from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are famous for being massive carbon emmitors yet the ironic thing is that as the production of palm oil produces so much CO2, more than fossil fuels, it means that ‘biofuel’ is not ‘bio’ at all. Biofuel made with palm oil can actually be worse than the conventional biofuel.
Palm oil and Human Conflict:
As well as all these environmental effects, palm oil companies have been know to force whole indigenous villages off their land, often without re-compensating the families for all that they lost. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences on plantations, with companies having been found to use child and slave labour, there have also been instances of illegal immigrants being used in Malaysia. In 2011 Wilmar (one of the world’s largest palm oil producers) destroyed an entire village in Indonesia as the village was in the way of a planned 40,000 hectare plantation, yet land-grabbing scenarios like this are sadly common. If the people resist they are often forcibly removed with none of their possessions and can be mistreated, there area over 5,000 land conflicts linked to palm oil expansion in Indonesia alone.If the workers are paid, it is on a minimum that is barely enough to live on. Last year PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi earnt $29,800,000 off the destruction of millions of acres of pristine, untouched rainforest.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil:
Even supposedly ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ palm oil is bad for the environment, as a sustainable palm oil plantation is meant to be produced without deforestation but this has been accused as being a green-washing scheme. However the damage has already been done and the plantation cannot support anything compared to the rich biodiverse ecosystems of the rainforest. RSPO standards allow growers to grow on peat land, that stores up to 10 times more CO2 than ‘normal’ soil. This means that planting on peat land is 10x worse for the environment, yet the RSPO allows this. The RSPO ( Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 as a way of authenticating palm oil and whether it was produced to the new sustainable standards, and to be a reliable body to certify products that contain sustainable palm oil.
(Workers unload oil palm fruit in Banten Province, Indonesia. The important crop is the target of a new report alleging harsh labor conditions.)
Palm oil also has lots of detrimental health effects. Palm oil is very high in palmitic acid and saturated fats; these make up 44% of palm oil’s composition and causes a build up of cholesterol in arteries, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks and is also known as a cause of obesity. Palm kernel oil, which is often used for cocoa icings, ice cream and caramel, contains up to 80 percent saturated fat. Palm oil can also cause cardiovascular diseases. Heating palm oil produces free radicals which can cause chronic disease. Palm oil also contains large amounts of fatty acid esters that can cause damage to DNA and cause cancer.
How you can help:
As you will now know by having read the blog above, palm oil is extremely bad for both you and the environment, so what can you do to get rid of it from your lifestyle? For a start, try to stop buying food that contains palm oil. You could do this by looking at the ingredients and seeing if there are any of the palm oil listings as shown in the second paragraph, I.e palmate, palm kernel. There are also free apps available in your app store that give extra info and tell you if the products you scanned contains palm oil. There are also numerous websites and social media accounts on platforms like instagram ( check out @palmoilinvestigations) that list palm oil free alternatives that are just as good. There are also companies that offer cosmetics that are palm oil free, these tend to be the ‘natural’ cosmetics companies such as Faith In Nature that makes things like shampoos and Lush, which is a very famous highstreet brand that also doesn’t test its products on animals and uses recycled plastic. For washing up powder, you can switch to soap nuts, which are quite literally nuts that you put in the washing machine (in a bag, not loose) and they serve the same purpose as your typical detergent, they can also be bought cheaply and can be reused for around 4-5 times before new nuts need to be used. This makes soap nuts a very cost-effective solution. To this you can add or separately use products from companies like Ecover or other eco-concious detergents.
(Palm oil plantation)
Some companies use huge amounts of palm oil in their products, these include Starbucks and PepsiCo, and by avoiding products made by these companies you reduce your palm oil intake and therefore are reducing your carbon footprint and the demand for palm oil; if everyone did things like this there would be a lot less of a demand for palm oil so less forest would be cut down as a result.
If you wish to have a go at a palm oil free lifestyle head over to saynotopalmoil.com and on their ‘what I can do’ section sign up for their 28 day Palm Oil Challenge. It encompasses 4 main areas of your home – Fridge, Pantry, Bathroom and Laundry and teaches you how to live a more natural, ethical life with recommended deforestation and palm oil free brands; food recipes and additional resources to help you about palm oil-free alternatives in every section of your home and more.
One of the main ways that you can cut palm oil from your diet is by cooking more. Ready-made meals contain lots of preservatives, sweeteners and palm oil. All of those are bad for you and can cause things like cancer as well as the effects talked about in the ‘Health’ section. Cooking more with fresh (preferably organic) food is healthier, and can also be enjoyable and bring your family together. Some foods that you buy in supermarkets are incredibly high in palm oil. The most famous of these is probably Nutella. Over 25% of Nutella is palm oil, this is stupidly high and what with the millions of jars being sold every year; will be responsible for huge amounts of deforestation of rainforests. 50% of Nutella is sugar, and only 10% is hazelnuts. This means that Nutella should be avoided by you as it is very high in both palm oil (25%) and sugar (50%), many people consume Nutella on a daily basis and this could lead to health effects in the future. Avoiding products like this that are very high in palm oil, just making small changes like this to your lifestyle, could have huge impacts on both you and the environment in the long term, and it is definitely worth making the effort for.
There are also lots of online petitions that you can find to do with palm oil, especially on the website www.rainforest-rescue.org (or search up rainforest rescue on your web browser), where there are lots of petitions that you can sign to help, and share to get more signatures, petitions like these can be successful and cause real progress and its quick and easy to do. If you search up ‘palm oil petitions’ you will find some more to sign on various other websites, and every signature helps so get your family and friends to sign it for more impact. You can also donate to various groups and organisations that are helping preserve rainforest and the animals that live in them, even a small monthly donation of 5 pounds, the price of two coffees, will help.
Your job as a palm oil-aware consumer:
Most consumers are unaware of the the effects that palm oil has, either to the environment or to people and to your health. That is why it is your responsibility to educate others, your friends and family, about the dangers of palm oil. Anything you consume or use that contains palm oil adds to your carbon footprint and you unknowingly contribute to the deaths of many endangered animals and the clearing of irreplaceable ancient rainforest, as well as human rights abuses. I hope that by reading this you have learnt about palm oil and all the dangers that it poses to the environment, and will try to avoid it in one of the ways mentioned and inform people about palm oil to spread the word and help our struggling planet. Please make the switch to a palm oil free lifestyle today.
My name is Oscar and I am the face behind Rescuetheworldtoday. I am a student who is passionate about the environment and like to raise awareness about it through daily posts on Instagram on my account (@rescuetheworldtoday) and I also do environmentaly-themed blogs here on RippleZoo, I hope you enjoy them.