Did you know that palm oil is a component of 50% of all packaged products in supermarkets? Did you also know, palm oil production has devastating environmental consequences including greenhouse gas emissions and endangerment of precious species like orangutans? While the 20th century was drawing to a close, the palm oil industry began to boom—the versatile vegetable oil solving a multitude of problems faced by food and cosmetics manufacturers. However, it’s time to acknowledge the damage caused by this industry and do our part to protect the planet and its biodiversity.
Globally, three billion people use products containing palm oil, individually consuming an average of eight kilograms per year. Palm oil is a colourless, odourless liquid, stable at high temperatures and resistant to oxidation. Its antioxidant properties help prolong the shelf life of products and have additional health benefits, protecting against heart disease and cancer. Palm oil can also be used as a biofuel. In 2009 the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive made it a requirement for biofuels to comprise ten percent of all fuels by 2020. Consequently, EU imports of palm oil increased by 34% from 2009-2011. In the late nineties, governing bodies such as the EU were promoting healthier foods and balanced diets. This led to manufacturers replacing trans fats with palm oil, further increasing its import and consumption. While other vegetable oils are also suitable for these purposes, palm yields five times more oil than rapeseed and six times more than sunflower for the same area of land. This makes it cheaper for customers and generates higher profits for the industry. Consumer pressure on cosmetic companies to stop using animal products may also have inadvertently increased use, as palm oil is used as a replacement for animal tallow. The issue of palm oil is a complex one as it has been introduced in many cases to combat other modern-day issues such as fossil fuel burning, unhealthy foods and animal testing.
85% of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis. Originally endemic to Africa, the tropical climates of Southeast Asia provide perfect growing conditions for 27 million hectares of oil palm trees— an area equivalent in size to New Zealand. Plantations are created through large scale deforestation and burning of tropical rainforests. This releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in quantities far outweighing the carbon offsets from using palm oil instead of fossil fuels. In fact, palm-based fuels release gases with three times the climate impact of regular fossil fuels. In 2015, forest burning in Indonesia caused the country to overtake the USA in terms of greenhouse gas emissions despite the USA being five times larger and far more industrialised. There is also a significant human cost of oil palm plantations, as local people are displaced from their land for industry. Today, 700 land conflicts are ongoing in Indonesia, with livelihoods of local people being destroyed to make way for international corporations.
As consumer demand for palm oil increased, annual production quadrupled from 1999 to 2015. In this same time period, an estimated 100,000 orangutans were killed as their habitats were destroyed and cleared for plantations. Orangutans eat palm seedlings and are considered pests by plantation workers. Some companies even offer monetary rewards up to $100 (£64) for workers who capture orangutans. It is unclear what then happens to these animals. One possibility is that they are sold into the illegal exotic pet trade with young and cute orangutans taken from their mothers who are killed. One conservation program reported treating 15 shot orangutans over the last ten years who had collectively sustained more than 500 pellet wounds. Orangutans already have low reproductive rates so killing sexually mature females and removing young individuals from natural habitats destabilises populations further. Arfiana Khairunnisa from the Centre for Orangutan Protection in Kalimantan warns that orangutans will become extinct in the wild within five years if we don’t take action.
What can we do to reduce palm oil consumption? The short answer is to buy palm oil free products. However, this is easier said than done due to the sheer volume of products containing it. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil certifies oil from plantations that protect local communities and the environment. Sustainable products are clearly labelled in supermarkets and buying them will encourage more manufacturers to use sustainable sources. Reducing the impact of existing plantations is an effective way of meeting demand while preventing further deforestation. Developing more prolific oil palm crops with higher yields may allow us to produce more oil without worsening the orangutan’s habitat loss. Action needs to be taken to protect our rainforests and wildlife. Us consumers have the power to pressurise industry and demand ethical and sustainable palm oil.