Palm oil is grown and used around the world. The plantations sprawl for miles and bring both business and problems. Palm growing is one of the major drivers of deforestation of some of the world’s most bio diverse rainforests.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil. It’s used in a variety of ways and is consumed by millions of people every day. It’s used to create oleo-chemicals for cleaning products and is found in household items like; detergents, deodorants, make-up, shampoos, soaps and toothpaste. Around 70% of all personal care items contain its derivatives. It’s also a natural preservative for processed foods. Palm oil is found in a multitude of snacks and drinks like; biscuits, cereals, chips, chocolate, margarine, soda and sweets. It can be used as a cooking oil or harnessed as a bio-fuel.
The plant is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. It grows cheap and fast in tropical climates. Two types of palm oil are produced: crude and kernel. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest producers accounting for 84% of the world’s supply. But it’s also produced in other countries including; Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nigeria and Thailand. In these countries its production plays a key role in economic development, food security and supply chains.
In the 1990’s Unilever were the first global corporation to trail-blaze the use of palm oil. The company had already been utilising the ingredient when they discovered its properties made it suitable for multiple purposes. Their employment of it in popular products lead to widespread growth in the economic sector, the demand accelerating worldwide.
In the early 2000’s Western Governments hailed vegetable oils as eco friendly alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. Growth and use of them was encouraged. Now palm oil used by many household brand names and giants like Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
In the early 2000’s growth of palm was encouraged worldwide
In 2004 the Roundhouse on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in response to increasing concerns about the impacts of the industry. RSPO has become the globally recognized standard for sustainable products. They are involved in operations to help set policies and product tracing initiatives. They also provide a RSPO certification for sustainably, responsibly sourced palm oil products. RSPO certified palm oil products help to protect the environment and the communities who depend on its production.
What is the problem with palm oil?
Deforestation for the plantations is disturbing. It involves the slashing and burning of jungles. This sees huge tons of toxic greenhouse gases, like CO2, emitted into the atmosphere. In parts of Indonesia the land is being cleared for new plantations at the rate of 300 football fields per hour. The industry is disrupting the natural balance of some of the world’s essential rainforest functions, its lungs.
Numerous animals and plant life are at risk from deforestation. Animals like orang-utans, elephants and rhinos have seen their habitats destroyed and their numbers decline. Some animals are forcibly killed to remove them from potential growing sites.
Palm oil has effects on its consumers too; it’s high in saturated fats that are linked to chronic health conditions. It also triggers allergies, but can be hard to detect as there are over 1000 chemical ingredient names for its derivatives.
The industry also contributes to a raft of social problems including illegal trade, land conflicts, pollution and slavery.
I’d previously heard about palm oil when I saw some plantations in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Their vast, green expanse is amazing and they seem to reach for endless miles. I spoke with locals about the industry and they understand the problems but appreciate the opportunities. I read more on the subject and learned that I personally consume palm oil daily. It’s in all of my favourite snacks! But having been immersed in some breath-taking rainforests, it’s disappointing to know I’m part of the problem.
Palm oil production in Guatemala
In Guatemala, the industry has created around 28,000 jobs and over $1 billion dollars of investment. The Guatemalan terrain, rich with minerals from volcanic ash, has proved a lucrative place to produce crops with high productivity. But the Country has lost a fifth of its rainforest cover since 2001, the palm activities contribute to this.
The industry has created tension within Guatemala’s indigenous communities. There are internal conflicts between farmers who want to use their land for subsidence farming, and others who are tempted by the trade. These communities have been subjected to a history of land ownership conflicts and exclusionary development within the Country. This leaves them without labour rights and subject to exploitation. Palm oil development has exacerbated these issues.
There are further problems with ‘land grabbing’. This is where big companies put pressure on small-scale farmers to sell their land below market value. Some farmers who sell their land end-up working for the companies in the plantations. Several plantations in Guatemala have been accused of environmental pollution and the contaminating of vital water sources.
Growing interest in more sustainable products has positively impacted the activities in the Country. Some plantations have received RSPO certification for sustainable practices.
Worldwide demand for oils is expected to increase by around 50% by the year 2050. Meeting these numbers will require additional expansion of growth operations. Existing palm plantations won’t vanish over night and our dependency is firmly fixed. The best economical and environment solution is to grow with more sustainable agriculture.
Boycotting or switching to other vegetable oils are good alternatives, however many people and communities already depend on the industry for their livelihoods. Switching to alternative oils requires more land use and could shift the problems to other places.
The work of the RSPO is vital in tackling the problem. Their sustainable practices certification requires that producers are committed to transparency. Producers must comply with law, regulations and best practice production methods. They are required to commit to environmental responsibility and maintain biodiversity by developing new habitats. To be considered as sustainable, producers should also exhibit consideration for the communities affected by their enterprises.
The UK has gone far in helping to set global standards in sustainability. 70% of all palm products imported to the UK in the year 2019 were from sustainable sources. The Country has set a future commitment for 100% of it’s palm oil importations to come from certified sustainable sources. Some big chain supermarkets, like Iceland and Walmart, have pledged to move to total sustainability. Positive steps like these are backed by activists, campaigners and NGO’s.
70% of all palm oil products imported to the UK in 2019 were from sustainable sources
Big corporations and supermarkets are listening to their consumers, which is helping the drive to more sustainable practices. Increased customer awareness of environmental issues is helping reduce the use of non-sustainable products. Consumers can empower themselves by checking the ingredients that are in the products they consume. There is also a growing range of natural and organic products available that do not contain palm oil.
Problematic palm oil
The palm oil crisis is just one example of many environmental predicaments experienced because of established industrial practices. It’s positive that some Governments and corporations are already paying attention to the matter, but action and change is slow. More urgent steps must be made to limit further damage.
Looking at the bigger picture, it highlights ongoing problems in developing countries. Places where corruption, exploitation and pollution are widespread. It shows how global product consumption continues to affect people, shape communities and cause damage in places where opportunities are limited. More can be done to help in these areas. Awareness and conversation help with stimulating solutions.
I wanted to shed light on the problem with palm oil because I didn’t know that I was routinely consuming an environmentally costly product. The problem is almost entirely invisible to consumers. From where it’s produced, to how it’s hidden in goods. The average shopper is completely unaware of the odourless and tasteless chemicals they’re consuming every day. Seemingly inconsequential ingredients, that are very problematic.
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About the writer
James is a content creator, writer, and marketing professional. Inspired by adventure and the outdoors, he has a passion for; business, conservation, health, sustainability, and travel. He has worked both in-house and freelance for a variety of businesses. James is the founder of the Jet Text freelance content writing service and Jet Text lifestyle blog.