An estimated 50% of supermarket products, including make-up and hygiene products and many of our favourite household foods contain palm oil. Environmentally-conscious consumers are frustrated by its seemingly inescapable presence.
But where does palm oil come from, how is it harmful to the environment and what actions are being taken by governments, businesses and customers?
The palm from which this edible vegetable oil is obtained is native to Africa. Specimens were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago, finding an ideal habitat to take root in.
Amongst the 42 producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia currently make up over 85% of the global supply of palm oil.
A ubiquitous and hidden ingredient
Given that palm oil is in about 50% of supermarket products, individuals may wonder why they don’t see it listed as an ingredient on their shampoo or other everyday items.
Palm oil has become a “dirty word” that manufacturers avoid on their packaging and is often not a labelling requirement. Its derivatives can appear under many names, and is commonly a component of other ingredients.
Take decyl glucoside, sodium lauryl sulfate and cetearyl alcohol, for example – these are not the easiest-to-pronounce ingredients, largely derived from palm oil. There are around 170 different names used to disguise palm oil on packaging.
In a January 2019 report, The World Health Organisation warned that alternative names for palm oil and unclear labelling means that “consumers may be unaware of what they are eating or its safety”.
It compared the palm oil industry to Big Tobacco, suggesting that the palm oil industry is deploying similar tactics to influence research in to the health effects of its products.
“These tactics – establishing lobbying structures in political and economic hubs, fighting regulations, attempting to undermine reliable sources of information and using poverty alleviation arguments – are similar to those pursued by the tobacco and alcohol industries”, it said. “However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny”.
The Malaysian Government has since asked the WHO to pull the report.
“We view the article as half-truths, un-scholarly, flawed and utterly biased against palm oil, with suspected intention of demonizing the palm oil industry,” stated the Ministry of Primary Industries.
Catastrophic impact on forests, endangered animals and climate change
While the health benefits of pail oil have been disputed, one thing is certainly clear: palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
Palm tree plantations have a life-cycle of 28-30 years. After this time, the trees reach a height of over 12 meters, making them uneconomical to harvest the fruits from which the oil is derived from. They are then cut and replaced by new trees.
It is estimated that up to 300 football fields forest globally are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations, destroying the habitat of already critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and rhino.
Forest loss, because of all the carbon contained in living organisms, coupled with conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, emits millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change.
NASA researchers say that accelerated slash and burn forest clearing in Borneo contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, which transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of carbon emissions.
Ironically, palm oil was supposed to help save the planet. A decade ago, Western nations mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, in an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and curb global warming.
Perhaps more pertinently to House leaders, it would appease America’s agricultural industry that had been lobbying for ethanol and biofuel production for years. Then-President George W. Bush proposed that biofuels, particularly ethanol largely distilled from corn and biodiesel made with vegetable oil, would power vehicles of the future.
But the legislation encouraging biofuels was drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs, ignoring scientific warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect.
Biodiesel production in the US subsequently jumped from 250 million gallons to 1.5 billion gallons from 2006 to 2016. As fuel markets took control of domestic soy oil to meet the American fuel mandate, the food industry replaced the soy it had used with a cheaper and comparable alternative: palm oil, largely imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Indonesian palm oil flooded western markets, transforming the tropical country and its rainforests.
Many of the region’s largest corporations, emboldened by the unprecedented palm oil boom, began to suppress critics and acquired more land to produce oil, leading to today’s industrial-scale deforestation – and a huge spike in carbon emissions.
Indonesia continues its environmental rollback, even though the country is seen as crucially important to the success of the Paris accord to cut global carbon emissions.
The government announced in December 2018 plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, and expand the production of palm oil for local biofuel consumption.
“They are doing some good things, but it is not enough, said Teguh Surya, who works an local environmental NGO, referring to Indonesia’s efforts to restore carbon-rich peatlands and a suspension on partial forest clearing.
“Palm oil expansion is still in planning, on the ground we found some peat areas still open for plantation and there is still weaknesses in law enforcement.”
Vote with the wallet
Fortunately for eco-conscious consumers, quick research and brand selectiveness can go a long way to steer clear of products that may contribute to unsustainable practices.
The Rainforest Foundation UK Palm Oil Guide provides a comprehensive list of sustainable companies and specific supermarket products for customers to shop more responsibly.
A handy consumer app, Buycott allows buyers across the world to scan the barcode of a product to find out its exact content and how sustainable it is.
Consumers can also look out for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products, as well as those containing organic palm oil.
In large numbers, more environmentally aware consumers can essentially force companies to clean up their act by boycotting corporations outed for unsustainable production – as in the cases of Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever.
To encourage change in the industry, “the solution is for big brands to only buy palm oil from responsible growers that protect rainforests”, says Diana Ruiz, senior palm oil campaigner for Greenpeace. “And it is available”.