As the demand for palm oil continues to rise globally, debates surrounding its consumption have intensified. In this article, we delve into the complexities of the industry, examining its environmental, social, and health implications to provide insights for individuals grappling with the question of whether or not to consume this highly controversial vegetable oil.
Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil on the planet. It comes from the fruit of oil palm trees which are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia a century ago and Indonesia and Malaysia now make up over 85% of the supply chain.
Palm oil has become an inescapable part of daily life, found in around 50% of all packaged products in supermarkets from chocolate and pizza to shampoo and toothpaste. Yet despite its pervasive presence, it is almost universally criticised, predominantly for ecological reasons. This raises the question of whether we should avoid palm oil and whether such an abstention is even possible or helpful to the planet.
The oil is often criticised in the media as its production causes ecological degradation in the form of deforestation to clear land for crops and loss of biodiversity, for example the steep decline of the Bornean orangutan population. In addition, the land cleared for palm crops in Southeast Asia is often on peatlands, which are rich stores of carbon, thus releasing even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
More on the topic: Palm Oil Deforestation: Origins, Environmental Degradation and Solutions
Palm fruit is often grown illegally in government protected areas where the cost of deforestation and biodiversity loss are felt the most keenly, as an Eyes on the Forest report from 2016 revealed. This illegally grown palm oil then enters the supply chains of the biggest palm oil providers. Moreover, within the palm oil industry, instances of worker exploitation and child labour are not uncommon.
Due to this enormous ecological and social cost, some advocate for the boycott of palm oil and it is common to find products which include a “palm-oil free” element in their marketing. However, an absolute boycott would likely exacerbate the situation since palm oil has a very high yield to land use ratio and supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils combined. A boycott would encourage the use of alternative vegetable oils which require more land, thereby increasing the ecological degradation already caused by this type of vegetable oil.
An alternative solution which various organisations – including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – advocate for is buying products which are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Nevertheless, as Greenpeace points out, the RSPO is largely ineffective, and it is extremely difficult to verify if the oil is sustainably sourced across the entire supply chain. In fact, the biggest brands supposedly certified by the RSPO are continuing to destroy previously untouched rainforest.
Another point of contention concerning this type of oil is its use as a biofuel. Around half of all palm oil imported to the European Union is used for biofuel owing to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, which made the blending of biofuels with other fuels mandatory. Some EU countries provided subsidies to farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia and private banks invested to encourage an increase in palm oil crops. Driven by these financial incentives, many smallholders switched to producing only palm oil, allowing them to invest more in education for their children, and reduce poverty.
The EU enacted a complete U-turn on its policy, however, when they removed subsidies on this controversial oil along with the European Commission announcing in March 2019 that it would phase out palm oil in biodiesel by 2030 after recognising its catastrophic environmental impact. This policy reversal left many farmers struggling and seemed to miss the bigger, root problem all along: the issue is not the type of fuel being used in EU vehicles but rather the amount being used.
Moreover, the problems that people raise with this type of oil are by no means unique to this crop. The global industrial food system is made up predominantly of monocultures, which refers to agriculture that focuses on growing one type of crop in one specific area of land. Palm oil is just one of many monocultures common in industrial agriculture – such as soybeans, wheat and corn – with some scholars estimating that monoculture crops cover 80% of agricultural and arable land.
Similar to palm oil, these monocultures have a dearth of biodiversity and require intensive pesticides and fertilisers which pollute water systems and damage soil health. Yet nobody would suggest that we boycott wheat or corn. The problems that are raised with this oil are myopic in that they focus only on this crop, failing to see that these problems are endemic to the entire agricultural system.
Furthermore, the problem with palm oil is not the oil itself but rather our demand and overconsumption of the products which contain it, which is reflective of our changing alimentary habits and shift away from agricultural societies in Western countries. Aside from biofuel mentioned above, a large proportion of the palm oil produced goes into ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are classified by the NOVA system as formulations made from substances derived from foods with little if any intact from Group 1, which comprises unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Consumption of UPFs is already high in Western countries such as the US (57.9%) and the United Kingdom (53%), and higher still for young people in the UK at 67%. Along with processed foods, palm oil is widely used in cosmetic and washing products such as makeup and shampoo. It is not a question of avoiding products containing the highly controversial oil but one of changing, that is to say reducing, consumption habits. This shift would also require Western societies to rethink their food systems and again place value on growing and eating locally as well as valuing the time of the people making wholesome food for their families. The rise of UPF consumption is not contained to Western societies as it is on the rise in Asia and Africa, in particular, who are following the developed countries path as they become more and more industrialised.
Overall, the question of palm oil is not an easy one. In confronting it, the pitfalls of the global industrial food system are revealed as is the West’s reliance on imported substances to produce their food and fuel their cars. Nevertheless, the problem with palm oil lies not with the palm crops themselves, but with modern consumption habits, which create such a demand and an agricultural system that is structured to extract maximum profit regardless of the ecological cost.
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