Palm oil and its link to deforestation

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that’s extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees and used heavily in the manufacture of food and cosmetics.  The oil is extracted directly from the fruit (crude palm oil) or squeezed from the seed (palm kernel oil). 

Why palm oil? 

Palm oil is incredibly versatile, particularly given it’s semi-solid state at room temperature meaning it’s perfect for keeping spreads 'spreadable' and stopping ice creams from ‘melting too quickly’. It’s also odourless & colourless and resistant to oxidisation giving products a longer shelf life; plus it’s used as the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo you can think of.

As a result, palm oil is now present in 50% of packaged supermarket foods ranging from sandwich spread, pizza, biscuits and chocolate; and 70% of personal care items like soap, moisturisers, deodorant and lipstick. 

Indonesia and Malaysia now produce more that 85% of the world’s supply, and on average we all use around 8kg of the stuff each year - so it’s in demand, but it does come at a cost.

What’s the impact of palm oil?

Unfortunately palm oil is often aggressively farmed given global demand and an inherent financial incentive to grow the cash crop. This often means biodiverse forest lands are burned and stripped of trees to make way for new palm plantations. Not only does this destroy the only habitat for endemic species like the Sumatran tiger, rhino and orang-utan, but the process of deforestation unlocks carbon from the rich soils and trees which is subsequently released into the atmosphere accelerating global warming. 

Why it isn’t so simple? 

Here’s the catch. Palm oil is actually an incredibly efficient crop that’s both a perennial and evergreen meaning it produces all year round, plus it does this for around 25 -30 years. It also yields much more oil per acre than any other oil alternative on the market. 

To produce the same amount of oil from rapeseed, sunflower of soybean, five to ten times the land would be required. Therefore switching to an alternative would require more farmland and likely involve more deforestation. Palm oil also supports livelihoods in developing economies meaning that simply turning off the supply would create other problems. 

What’s the resolution? 

Palm oil is in demand for a reason given it brings a huge amount of value to an inordinate number of manufacturing processes. As result it cannot simply be removed without another viable alternative taking its place, and as we’ve seen, there isn’t one right now. The easiest way to have impact is to change the way palm oil is produced, ensuring that sustainability is at the forefront of the industry, and ensuring minimum standards and best practices are imposed when producing and sourcing palm oil. 

If you want to support personally, here’s 5 ways you can have a positive impact.

1. Avoid boycotting 

As we’ve seen replacing palm oil with other oils will only serve to accelerate deforestation since alternatives have nowhere near the same yield per acre.  

2. Only buy sustainable

Ensure the palm oil you purchase is certified as ‘deforestation free’. This sustainable certification means it is produced by companies that work with local people and use existing palm plantations without cutting down more rainforest.

3. Use technology  

Download the Giki app on your iPhone or Android device, to discover which products use sustainable palm oil when you’re next out shopping.

4. Lobby change 

If you don’t see sustainable palm oil in your local supermarkets, demand it. The more we demand, the more likely it will be made available.

5. Educate others

Use your knowledge to educate others about palm oil. The truth is, most people don’t realise that the food we eat can cause deforestation. The more people know about the problem the more can be done. Why not also take a look at the latest palm oil scorecard.

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