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Palm oil: Why it’s so controversial and how you can avoid it

Palm oil plantations are decimating orangutan populations, devastating biodiversity, exacerbating global warming and evicting native people from their lands… so why is their byproduct in 50 per cent of packaged food we buy, and is there a better alternative?

Palm oil is so deeply entrenched in your daily routine, you probably don’t even know it’s there. It’s in 50 per cent of supermarket goods, including biscuits, ice cream, shampoos, chocolate, toothpaste, cosmetics, margarine, pastries, detergent, chips, muesli bars, frozen meals and so much more. Unless you’re carefully avoiding it, you almost certainly eat it and slather it on your body every day.

The negative effects of palm plantations have been getting more attention in recent years, but there’s still not a lot we can do, even once we’re aware. Australian food labelling laws permit palm oil to be labelled as vegetable oil (and many other names including 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, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate and Palmityl Alcohol).

Understandably, this makes it quite hard to spot. The list is so long most of us have no hope of remembering it while trying in vain to be responsible citizens at the supermarket.

Companies try to disguise palm oil for a number of reasons: its production is responsible for deforestation, social justice issues and large scale carbon emissions.

Deforestation and catastrophic species loss

Palm crops can only be easily grown in tropical climates, which are often among the most biodiverse in the world. The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations throughout Indonesia and Malaysia – where nearly 90 per cent of the world’s palm oil originates from – has wreaked havoc on biodiversity in recent years by destroying vast swathes of unique rainforest. West African and South American plantations are also expanding to feed our insatiable demand.

Nine million hectares, an area significantly bigger than Tasmania, has already been cleared in Indonesia. According to a report by the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP), “98% of Indonesia’s forest may be destroyed by 2022, the lowland forest much sooner.”

That’s not good news for the many endemic species that call these rainforests home, including species of elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinoceroses on the brink of extinction. In many cases, these forests are the last place on earth where these species can be found.

Human rights abuses

Animals aren’t the only ones suffering. Many palm oil producers justify the destruction by citing “job creation” for people in developing nations. Unfortunately, the wealth from palm oil is unevenly distributed and the industry is fraught with instances of forced labour and child labour. Other reports have found palm plantations actually increase population poverty in their vicinity, and access to healthcare per capita decreases. In light of this, the jobs argument rapidly loses sway.

Additionally, land rights contests are rife from Colombia to Cameroon to Indonesia. Indigenous people who live in – and rely on – the forest are being forcibly removed from their homes by industry giants and governments to make way for palm oil.

Rainforest cleared for palm oil plantations/

Palm oil plantations are destroying unique global rainforests rich with endemic species.

Carbon emissions

Destroying rainforests for palm oil is directly contributing to climate change. Peatland, which covers much of Indonesia, stores an astonishing amount of carbon. When it is burnt and drained, this carbon is released into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions estimates for tropical deforestation vary from 6 to 18 per cent of carbon emissions globally.

Health problems

Palm oil is also not particularly good for you (though the continued reigns of the McDynasty and Big Tobacco prove we don’t really care so much about that). Also, most alternatives to palm oil aren’t really much better for your health.

What about “sustainable” palm oil?

Only buying products with Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is better than nothing; it shows corporations that people are awake to the problem. However, truly sustainable palm oil is not really available yet.

Most importantly, there’s no such thing as truly “sustainable” given the current growth of demand – at this rate, much more forest will inevitably need to be cleared.

What other options exist?

Disregarding palm oil’s problems, it’s obvious why it’s such a viable oil. Per year, one hectare of land can produce about 0.38 tonnes of soybean oil, 0.48 tonnes of sunflower oil, 0.67 tonnes of rapeseed oil or more than 3.7 tonnes of palm oil. The problem is the location of the hectare: palm oil grows best close to the equator where biodiversity is richest, unique species abound and indigenous populations still live traditional lives.

Scientists are working on future solutions, like heterotrophic algal oil, which can be grown in factories without requiring specific locations, though it hasn’t yet been deemed viable.

The best Australian consumers can do at the moment is to avoid products containing palm oil, spread demand across different Australian-grown and regulated alternatives like soybean, sunflower, canola and olive oils and call for more transparency in labelling laws.

Lead image: Flickr

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Comment (2)

    michelle desilets

    Saturday 23 February 2019

    Sustainable palm oil does exist. See Palm Oil Innovation Group, whose members include Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Orangutan Land Trust, Sumatran Orangutan Society and more. http://www.poig.org
    Organisations engaged in this issue agree that a blanket boycott of palm oil is NOT a solution; better to demand deforestation-free, sustainable palm oil.



    Monday 4 March 2019

    Hi Claire,

    I would like to share some information with you regarding the sustaianble palm industry. Can you please share your email?

    Thank you