Palm oil has been the subject of many heated discussions over the past decade and is set to be a hot topic going into the future too. However, the conversations around this particular product are often complex and overwhelming, making it hard for us to make informed decisions about what actions we should personally take in our daily lives. I hope that this article helps to break down the basics of the palm oil issue and give you some actionable tips.
What is Palm Oil?
It is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Two types of oil can be produced from these trees. Crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit and palm kernel oil comes from crushing the kernel (the stone in the middle of the fruit). The vast majority of palm oil is made in Indonesia and Malaysia, but many other countries also produce this product. Palm Oil is a very versatile oil and therefore is widely used. In fact, it is the world’s most popular vegetable oil and found around 50% of packaged products on supermarket shelves, including everything from donuts to deodorant.
Why is it an issue?
Palm oil is sadly a major cause of deforestation in some of the world’s most valuable and biodiverse forests, destroying habitats or harming endangered spices such as Orangutangs and Sumatran Rhinos. Globally, 193 critically endangered and vulnerable species are threatened by palm oil production. Not to mention there are issues surrounding worker exploitation, child labour and increased greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the industry – nearly half of Indonesia’s GHG emissions come from deforestation and land-use changes.
Surely we should just ban it then?
Banning palm oil completely isn’t necessarily the only solution. Palm oil is a very efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil. To produce the same amount of oil through alternative sources such as sunflower or coconut oil would need anything from 4-10 times more land, ultimately leading to more problems. Plus palm oil is an important crop for many small farmers who depend on it for their livelihood and supporting their local economy. So we need a multifaceted approach.
So, what’s the solution?
There are few ways to tackle these issues.
1) Sustainable palm oil farming.
In 2004 the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed. This organisation sets standards and practices for producing and sourcing palm oil, putting planet and people are the forefront, and trying to ensure that the environment and society isn’t negatively impacted by the crop. We need companies to be transparent with their sourcing of palm oil and to commit to using RSPO certified suppliers – specifically those using “zero deforestation” policies. Consumers need to also check the products they buy to ensure that if they do contain palm oil that it is certified sustainable.
2) Reduce our palm oil consumption.
Ultimately, this is how we can make the biggest difference on a daily basis. Despite the RSPO’s valuable work, many products still contain palm oil which is sourced problematically and it is hard to check that all farmers are following the guidelines. As a result, it is important that there is an overall reduction in palm oil consumption. In 2014, EU law changed so that any product which contains palm oil has to state this clearly on the ingredients list. Therefore it is now easier than ever for us to check if it is in the products we are purchasing. By consuming less we are reducing demand and therefore helping to protect rainforests, biodiversity and endangered species. Luckily, many brands are now proudly labelling and certifying themselves as 100% palm oil free.
One of my favourites is Ambassador Foods because not only are their products palm oil free, they are vegan, gluten-free and packaged in 100% recyclable or compostable packaging. They focus on reducing their carbon emissions, sourcing sustainably, packaging responsibly and keeping ethics at the heart of every stage of their supply chain. Check them out here.
Disclaimer: This article is produced in collaboration with Ambassador Foods.