Palm oil… is it just another oil in the long list of vegetable oils, like olive oil, almond oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil? No, palm oil is different. You see, palm oil manages to get one up on many of the vegetable-derived oils that are used in cooking, packaged foods, cosmetics and other household products. It has a high melting point and is highly saturated, which few, if any, other vegetable oils can match. These two qualities make it very versatile and suitable for use in a wide variety of ways. Coconut oil comes close to matching its usefulness, but the high yields from palm oil plantations cannot be matched, making palm oil the cheaper option. So, that’s how we’ve ended up with around half of all the products on supermarket shelves containing palm oil.

Why is this a bad thing? Well, being the most widely used vegetable oil in the world puts palm oil in high demand, so more and more land is being cleared to make way for plantations. The majority of palm oil, around 85% of the world’s supply, comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where regulations are routinely flouted and bribery is far too common. The pristine rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, some of the oldest rainforests in the world, are being destroyed to make way for sprawling palm oil plantations.

Thanks to the guys at Greenpeace, you can watch this next video to find out the good, the bad and the ugly about palm oil in under 3 minutes…

Last year the slash and burn method of land clearing was a large contributing factor to a catastrophic disaster, when Indonesian peat lands caught fire and huge forest fires spread for months on end. Human lives were lost, hundreds of thousands suffered from respiratory infections due to the smoke, and millions of tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. The irresponsible methods being used to clear land and to harvest palm oil are causing a wide range of problems, including displacing local people and endangering protected wildlife.

1280px-Riau_deforestation_2006Aidenvironment ‘Deforestation for oil palm plantation’ CC2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the animals at risk of extinction include the Sumatran tiger, elephant and rhinoceros, all critically endangered and at risk of losing more of their natural habitat to palm oil plantations. The orangutan is also at risk of being wiped out if rainforest continues to be cleared. These mammals are just a few of the living things that could be lost forever, but there are many more animals, birds, insects and plants that are being destroyed to make way for the cash crop. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that across Southeast Asia around 300 football fields of rainforest is being destroyed every hour. It has been projected that if deforestation continues at its current rate the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia could completely disappear within twenty years.

orangutan-498533_1280Skiterphoto ‘Orangutan’ CC0 via Pixabay

So what can you do about it? Making a conscious choice about what products you buy is a step in the right direction. This can be tricky though, as something that contains palm oil doesn’t actually have to list the words ‘palm oil’ in its ingredients. In fact, if you see any of these ingredients listed, vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, and palm fruit oil, then it will almost definitely contain palm oil. There are many other labels used for palm oil and its derivatives too, like palmitic acid, octyl palmitate, sodium kernelate, elaeis guineensis, and even palmitoyl oxostearamide. The truth is that it’s actually quite hard to find foods and products you might already regularly buy that don’t contain some form of palm oil. Are you feeling like the guy in this next video right now?

If you have a sweet tooth for treats like ice cream, cookies and chocolate, be warned, most of these contain palm oil. Packaged bread, margarine, instant noodles and pizza dough almost always have palm oil as an ingredient. Shampoos, washing detergents and soaps are also often made using palm oil. But all is not lost, because some conscientious artisans have taken it upon themselves to create alternatives to the mass produced palm oil laden products filling supermarket shelves.

For a palm oil free chocolate look no further than Divine Chocolate, a company creating delicious varieties of your favorite confectionary and a supporter of the Fair Trade social movement. If you don’t want to give up your morning bowl of breakfast cereal then switch to Dorset Cereals, which is proud to have removed any trace of palm oil from its entire supply chain. Keeping clean can be palm oil free too, when you use Dr Squatch natural soap, which uses nourishing coconut oil amongst other organic ingredients in all of its products, and not a trace of palm oil.

7197064146_250a720602_bGlennhurowitz ‘Deforestation on peatland for palm oil plantation’ CC2.0 via Flickr

As awareness spreads about how destructive the palm oil industry is more and more companies will start to offer alternatives, or at least make sure that they are sourcing palm oil responsibly. An association called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) believes that palm oil can be produced sustainably without the need for further rainforest destruction. They are working with suppliers to reform the industry, in an effort to stop illegal plantations and put a stop to rampant deforestation. If you see a RSPO-Certified Sustainable Palm Oil label on something you want to buy in the supermarket, then at least you know your money is going to a company that’s trying to solve the problem.

The palm oil problem is something that is not going away anytime soon, with land across the world being eyed up as potential for plantations. Africa could be next on the list for palm oil prospectors as land becomes limited in Southeast Asia. That is, unless palm oil gets knocked off its position as the world’s number one vegetable oil… Last year The Guardian reported that researchers at the University of Bath in the UK have found that an oily yeast traditionally used in South African winemaking matches the key properties of palm oil. Called Metschnikowia pulcherrima, this yeast can grow on any organic waste and could require 100 times less land than palm oil. Perhaps this can help, but will so many people and so much money involved in the palm oil business making any type of switch is going to be difficult.


Featured image: Feelphotoz ‘Palm Oil’ CC0 via Pixabay

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About Jack Taylor

Jack Taylor’s stories have been printed in The Yak and KuBan, and published online at SurfSection, Deus Ex Machina, Drift Surfing and Drifting Thru. When not writing he’s out catching waves or planning his next overseas adventure. Follow him @byJackTaylor


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