What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palm plantations are grown in tropical climates in Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported is from Indonesia and Malaysia – the third most important producer is Nigeria. Palm oil is the most efficient plant-based oil to produce and yields between 6-10 times more oil per hectare than alternative oil crops like sunflower, olive, soybean or rapeseed.
Why is palm oil so popular?
As it is solid at room temperature in cooler climates, palm oil makes a cheap, vegetarian substitute for butter or other solid fats used in baking. It is used extensively in the production of processed foods including bread, biscuits, cereals, chocolates, pizzas, cleaning products, chewing gum and shampoo. In fact, in the UK, it is estimated that a third to a half of all the products in supermarkets contain palm oil!
Palm oil’s high saturate content makes it ideal for creating a crispy coating on fried products, but also make it a useful addition to lipsticks. Palm oil is added to cleaning products to create foam. The famous soap brand ‘Palmolive’ was named after the palm and olive oils that gave it a smooth texture.
Palm oil is widely used in animal feed and the UK imports 10% of the global supply in palm kernel meal – 80% of this is used to feed pets and livestock. More than 50% of the palm oil imported into Europe in 2018 was used for vehicle fuel. The shells of the palm that have had their pulp extracted to make oil, can be used to make biofuels. However, studies suggest that palm oil biodiesel produces three times as much carbon as a fossil fuel equivalent and with the development of electric vehicles, using palm oil for fuel is neither sustainable nor viable.
What are the problems with palm oil?
- Palm oil is not good for our health as it has a high saturated fat content.
- Palm oil is a significant ingredient in many processed foods.
- Palm oil plantations are linked to deforestation in the tropics which is contributing to global warming.
- Without the maintenance of very large blocks of inter-connected forest, there is a huge risk that hundreds of species could become extinct.
- Orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and other large mammals are under great pressure and populations are falling.
- Illegal wildlife trade is thriving in cleared forests which allows much greater access to traditionally remote areas. The plight of the pangolin is a good example. It is the most trafficked mammal in the world and pangolins could disappear forever.
- Maintaining tropical forests is critical to ensure water supplies moderate the impacts of droughts and fires, and to support ecological and economic stability.
- Many indigenous peoples have been displaced but could be supported to care for tropical rainforests sustainably.
What is sustainable palm oil and is it OK?
Greenpeace has called sustainable palm oil a ‘con’ mainly because The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) did not ban its members from destroying tropical forest to set up palm oil plantations until 2018 and even then, members were not stopped.
“Brands have broken their promise to clean up the palm oil industry. To save Indonesia’s rainforests brands have to use less palm oil – and any palm oil they do use must come from suppliers that are 100% deforestation-free” Greenpeace, 2019.
In April 2021, Ethical Consumer made its palm oil sourcing rating stricter and the requirements for large companies more stringent after reviewing the criticisms of sustainable palm oil and the RSPO. These include:
- The RSPO does not adequately audit companies
- The RSPO is slow to penalise members that break the rules
- It’s overly influenced by its members
- It enables greenwashing
- Its standards aren’t high enough
- It may not make a difference
- It may not be well-suited to smallholders.
“the RSPO has been used by the palm oil industry to greenwash corporate destruction and human rights abuses, while it continues to expand business, forest destruction and profits”
Friends of the Earth International, 2018.
Greenscents is 100% palm oil free
Overall, it is best to stop using palm oil but if that’s not possible, try to cut down each week. This means limiting processed foods and cooking from scratch as often as you can. Always read produce labels carefully and be aware of the issues surrounding ‘sustainable palm oil’.
Many sectors such as cleaning and beauty include palm oil in their ingredients list or as a derivative during production. This is completely unnecessary and indicates that there could be an additional profit incentives or inadequate ingredients sourcing.