Palm oil is derived from the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.). It thrives in tropical climates with a lot of water, and originates from West Africa.
Starting from the food industry to the cosmetic and pharmaceuticals industry, palm oil is a substance that manufacturers heavily depend upon. This, of course, is not surprising because the procedure in making palm oil is inexpensive which means it is a favorite of these manufacturers.
Additionally, the high melting point and zero trans-fat label make the widespread use of palm oil very natural.
Name any processed food, there is a 90% chance that it contains palm oil. The same goes for skincare, haircare, and makeup products. In fact, studies have shown that of all the consumer goods available in the market, 50% or precisely half of it contains palm oil. Even the fuel we use for vehicles includes palm oil in them.
There aren’t a lot of substitutes for palm oil. So, using this popular oil extensively will continue unless we find a fitting substitute. However, this poses a huge threat to mother Earth as it greatly affects the environment and also the health of its inhabitants.
Let us walk through the problems one by one.
1. The threat to the environment
The demand for palm oil means that for its production, a staggering number of palm trees have to be planted. This demand for production has led to grave deforestation and environmental degradation.
Oil palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.Rain Forest Rescue.org
As we all know, deforestation is one of the biggest causes of global warming and the catastrophic effects it has on our home planet. The sad part is, it contributes to global warming in ways more than one.
Even a few decades ago, there were a handful number of plantations but with the increasing demand? The number and sizes of these plantations in the tropics are growing at an alarming rate. Sadly, they grow at the cost of cutting down millions of trees in the tropical rain forests.
What effect does this have on the environment?
Due to all this, we are losing precious biodiverse regions of the Earth, disrupting the mechanism of the ecosystem. The trees in the forests were meant to maintain the oxygen and carbon levels of the atmosphere but with them gone, carbon dioxide levels are rising – worsening global warming.
In this way, millions of acres of trees are lost and in order to create an ideal, clean plantation, the undergrowth and woods of the forest are burned. The smoke released during this particular process is equally harmful to the environment.
Apart from this, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia (which happen to be one of the biggest producers of palm oil) are characterized by tropical peat soil and are responsible for more global warming.
Peat soil is known to hold carbon in it, which without the protective cover of the leaves, easily makes its way to the atmosphere.
This problem has been picked up by environmentalists, and countries have been warned of what is at stake. Even so, these activities have not slowed down and rather more land is being acquired to plant more palm trees, most of which is part of the endangered tropical forests.
In 2018, approximately 3.6 million hectares of primary forest were cleared – an area roughly the size of Belgium.
Effects on wildlife
As you know from the previous point that palm trees only grow in the tropical region of the Earth, home to all tropical rainforests in the world. These very forests house thousands of species of animals and insects.
In addition to losing so many varieties of trees and plants, forest clearance is responsible for killing the animals who were inhabitants of the forests. A great number of species have already died and had their habitat destroyed. The chance for survival is slim. Many of these creatures have already been pushed to the brink of extinction. This includes some incredible animals such as Sumatran tigers and Orangutans.
It has been estimated that oil palm expansion could affect 54% of all threatened mammals and 64% of all threatened birds globally. It also reduces the diversity and abundance of most native species. For example, it has played a major role in the decline in species such as orangutans and tigers.The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
The list of animals does not end there. Other species of animals have become endangered as well due to the growth of palm tree plantations. Among those are the Sumatran rhinos and clouded leopards. To make matters worse, the animals that have lost their homes are the ones that are most vulnerable to poaching.
The act of poaching has also been aggravated by the newly developed transport and communication system around the plantations. As a result, these precious animals are no longer free. Oftentimes, they are held captive in zoos or parks and even kept at home as pets!
The health-risks in consumption of palm oil
The fastest way to elevate cholesterol levels is through the consumption of trans-fat. Palm oil is free of such fats and thus considered generally healthy for humans. The same can’t be said for the saturated fat content of this oil is, which is high, to say the least.
Though it may not contain trans-fats, the amount of saturated fat in it makes it a very unhealthy addition to our diets. Palm oil in large amounts can seriously damage your cardiovascular health.
At the same time, some pieces of evidence suggest that in certain scenarios, palm oil also increases the risk of cancer. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) warns against products that contain refined palm oil. They detected the formation of potentially carcinogenic substances during food processing. in particular when palm oil was refined at high temperatures. Children would be particularly at risk, as well as people consuming palm oil in large quantities.
While saturated fat intake can be tackled by having a proper, balanced diet, potential carcinogenic attributes of a certain kind of food should be worrisome enough to reduce the regular intake.
In other words, it is better to stay on the safe side and consume palm oil and other saturated fats as little as possible.
Communities living near plantations are affected in a number of ways. For example, growth or extension of the plant could mean that local people are often forced to give up their land to the owners. This creates a huge drift between these two groups of people as the locals fight to prevent the loss of all their property including homes and ancestral sites and more.
In 2013, the National Land Office registered 3000 land conflicts between palm oil firms, including numerous RSPO members, and local communities in Indonesia.Bread for All
What happens to the locals?
Often, palm oil plantations employ locals to work for them. With the industry booming, it is a good source of income for most. Unfortunately, those that do not get to work have lower incomes which creates strife among the local population.
Commercial cultivation needs insecticides and pesticides which can pollute nearby water bodies. This is concerning, especially with excessive use of these chemicals. Polluted waters affect both aquatic creatures and humans alike. The smoke released during the undergrowth burning process is also very harmful to the people.
On the other hand, there have been various reports of human trafficking, particularly from very poor countries, and human rights violations, including the use of forced labor from adults and children. The Palm oil business, it seems, doesn’t treat people and nature particularly well.
There is a never-ending list of social and environmental problems deeply rooted in the palm oil business and these issues are affecting lives all over.
Are there any substitutes to palm oil?
Oil palm produces about 35% of all vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil cropsInternational Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN
The truth is, there are very few oils that can be a close comparison to palm oil mostly because it is the highest yielding vegetable oil crop. Any alternative, like rapeseed or cocoa, would take up much more space to produce the same amount of oil. This is why we are so dependent on this particular vegetable oil. Trying to replace it on a massive scale with alternative crop oils like sunflower, rapeseed or exotic oils like shea butter would most likely result in an even more devastating loss of untouched rainforest and other habitats.
Scientists are working on creating substitutes that can replace palm oil easily. For example, “Biocrude” can be made from a particular type of algae. This product could primarily be used instead of jet fuels, diesel, or shipping oil which contain palm oil. While at the University of Bath, researchers have also developed a chemically-engineered oily yeast that mimics Palm oil’s qualities.
Other than this, many other studies and researches are being conducted to find a proper substitute for palm oil. One that is not as harmful to the environment and world. Right now, scientists are formulating a new species of plant. This plant can hopefully give us the benefits of palm oil without the dangerous effects
So what is the solution?
With people being more aware of the environment, companies are under a lot of pressure to solve this problem. Big-time players like the beauty, skincare, and haircare industry are starting to make a shift. Many are now substituting palm oil for coconut oil, cocoa butter, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, and other natural ingredients. The food and cosmetic industry is reaching out to alternatives like oil from shea, jojoba, or mango kernels.
Unfortunately, these alternatives are only as good as the way they were produced and the carbon footprint that went along with that. While there are indeed many sustainable options, it can be assumed that most companies will first and foremost think of their production cost. If a product’s ingredients aren’t explicitly labeled as eco, or sustainable, they probably aren’t.
Sustainability is the key
Since there aren’t a lot of alternatives available yet, the best way to go in terms of lessening the harmful effects of palm oil is making its current production more sustainable.
The core of the negative environmental effects of palm oil doesn’t lie within the crop itself, but the way it is grown. Instead of using pre-existing farmland or unused land,
prime rainforest gets slashed, burned, and destroyed to make space for farmland.
Since replacing palm oil with other oils might lead to further biodiversity loss, the only real solution as of now is to buy, consume, and use products containing sustainable palm oil. This will send a powerful message to corporations, hopefully leading them to enforce stricter, more sustainable standards in the future. Boycotting palm oil altogether could also diminish efforts to produce palm oil sustainable.
Unfortunately, finding suitable products is still not as simple as it should be and might require some research. There are some apps available to help with that, and keeping up to date online never hurts. With rising demand, hopefully, new trustworthy eco-labels will emerge. If demand grows, it will probably be easier to make the right choices in the future.
On a national scale, the government and industry players need to work together closely. Both to reduce the impact of palm oil production and to find alternatives that are more sustainable. Importing country policies need to be applied to palm oil and other vegetable oils. All efforts should focus on minimizing the negative environmental and social impacts of growing the crops for these vegetable oils.
As individuals, the best we can do is to create awareness and promote sustainable living. Start small and soon enough you’ll see what difference you can make in the world by simply trying. Avoiding processed foods and cooking fresh will also drastically reduce palm oil intake.
Be active in creating awareness. Educate yourself and be part of the change. There are a lot of non-profit organizations you can support that cater to promoting the conservation of the environment and wildlife that has taken the brunt of palm oil production. These organizations also help in encouraging companies who use palm oils to clean up their supply chain and convince them to adapt to more eco-friendly production practices.
One of these is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A non-profit organization, they set the standard on what it means to have certified sustainable palm oil. RSPO also develops and implements global standards for companies to follow when it comes to sustainable practices in producing palm oil. While the org Say No to Palm Oil teaches consumers how to switch to using sustainably-sourced palm oil and creates awareness regarding the endangerment of wildlife due to palm oil production.
How can I avoid buying products that contain unsustainable palm oil?
Always be conscious of the products that you are consuming. Palm oil is usually disguised under the name “vegetable oil” and products that have the word “palm” contain palm oil or its derivatives.
If you’re not sure whether or not what you’re buying contains this product: do your research or you can always contact the company if you wanna go the extra mile. To be sure, try buying products that clearly label their ingredients. This way, you don’t fall into accidentally buying goods that have palm oil in them.
Finally, go green and try making your everyday essentials at home! Become a DIY expert and make your own snacks and household products. This allows you to hone your creativity and because you make it yourself, you get to choose ingredients that are wholesome and good for the environment!