What’s the deal with palm oil?

It’s in cosmetics, food, toiletries, and dozens of products you probably use every day. According to Say No to Palm Oil, it can be found in 40-50% of household items. Unfortunately, palm oil production is one of the biggest contributors to rainforest destruction today. How?

The Union of Concerned Scientists explains: “Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, which thrives in humid climates. 85% of palm oil production occurs in just two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, where huge swaths of tropical forests and peatlands (carbon-rich swamps) are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, releasing carbon into the atmosphere to drive global warming while shrinking habitats for a multitude of endangered species.” In fact, according to The Independent, deforestation causes eighty percent of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions, making the tropical nation the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

On top of this, these rainforests are home to thousands of species, including many endangered ones.  Orangutan Foundation International pinpoints palm oil as the leading cause of orangutan extinction, writing, “every year it is estimated that between 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans are killed in Palm Oil concessions.”

OFI goes on to say, “The establishment of palm oil plantations has been a disaster not only for endangered wildlife such as orangutans and tigers (in Sumatra) but also has excacerbated conflict with local communities in Indonesia over traditional land rights. Local people have been evicted from their customary land holdings and local communities impoverished, leading to much conflict with palm oil concession companies.”

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It’s hard to avoid a product that appears in nearly every commercial product in grocery stores today.

What is being done currently?

On a large scale, some companies are looking into the development and use of alternatives to unsustainably-produced palm oil. For example, Solazyme, a California company, uses microalgae to produce oils that can be used in biofuels as well as foods and cosmetics. And Nestlé, Unilever and Wal-Mart have all pledged to transition to only sustainably sourced palm oil.

The palm oil industry is also beginning to make very slow progress towards more sustainable farming practices. Indonesia has had a ban on deforestation since 2011, but it’s riddled with loopholes. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil started certifying palm oil that met environmental standards 10 years ago, but many of its members continued to cut down forests.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Philip Taylor, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, notes: “The methane released from palm oil refineries accounts for more than one-third of the palm industry’s impact on the climate, and a single pond of palm refinery wastewater annually puts out climate-warming gases equivalent to 22,000 cars. That methane could be used to make electricity by simply covering the pond and placing a biogas generator beside it. If all of the more than 1,000 palm oil refineries worldwide turned their methane into electricity, it would reduce the climate impacts of the operations 34-fold. Yet only 5 percent of the facilities do so.” Fortunately, Indonesia’s Sustainable Palm Oil initiative requires palm operations to begin developing biogas capture, which should speed more companies’ adoption of the technology.

What can we do?

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to avoid palm oil in the aisles of our stores. As Hillary Rosner of Ensia explains: “Palm oil’s omnipresence — and the fact that it seems to have insinuated itself into our daily lives largely unnoticed — may be exactly what keeps us from rallying against it. Unlike timber or tuna, palm oil is so dispersed and hidden it would be like trying to boycott water molecules.”

However, there are some ways to be more selective when you go to the supermarket. Checking the ingredients lists on processed food – particularly snacks –  is a good place to start. You have to be careful though: palm oil is often listed by other names, making it tricky to spot. For a list of alternate names for palm oil as well as a list of products and brands that use it, check out this article. As Green Global Travel notes, “You’ll note that many of these products are unhealthy anyway, as most types of junk food and candy contain Palm Oil. Eliminating these products from our diets will not only benefit the environment in the long term, but also our health.”

You can also forego processed foods entirely and replace them with overall healthier, more environmentally-friendly homemade snacks. The GGT article provides more tips for this, explaining: “Baking cookies and homemade cereal bars is fairly easy, and much better for us. A quick search on Google reveals many recipes for granola bars that take less 30 minutes to make . . . Baking your own bread and making your own ice cream may be time-consuming and difficult, especially if you have children. But smaller local artisan stores– hand-made ice cream shops and family bakeries– are far less likely than supermarket brands to make use of Palm Oil.”

At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world if you aren’t able to cut out all palm oil from your diet. The important thing is to reduce our consumption, because even a small change can have a huge impact. As the GGT article put it, “if each of us consumed just half as much Palm Oil as we do now, the agricultural industry would get the message loud and clear.”

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Additional resources:

For more on palm oil’s impact on orangutans, read this article from The Guardian:
“Orangutans fight for survival as thirst for palm oil devastates rainforests”

To read more about palm oil production’s environmental impact, check out these articles:
“Palm Oil: What’s the Issue?”
“How did palm oil become such a problem-and what can we do about it?”
“Environmental & social impacts of palm oil production”

“Palm oil fact sheet”

Download OFI’s helpful guide to avoiding palm oil in your products here (pdf).

To learn more about what companies are doing to switch to more sustainable farming practices, read this National Geographic article:
“Endangered Orangutans Gain From Eco-Friendly Shifts in Palm Oil Market”

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