Team ulaunch explains why palm oil is unsustainable and has led to widespread deforestation in South-East Asia.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil having high utility in the food industry and is thus sought after in the global market.
Palm oil is in nearly everything – it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets. Everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick contain palm oil in some form. This is because it has the following applications:
- It is resistant to oxidation and so can give a longer shelf-life to products.
- It is stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture.
- It is odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products.
Because of these benefits, global corporations use palm oil at an unimaginable scale to manufacture their products.
How does palm oil cause problems?
The palm oil industry has been a ravaging destroyer for Asia’s forests, wildlife and climate. This is because forests are burnt and cleared to convert the land to palm plantations. 85% of Palm Oil in the world originates from Indonesia and Malaysia, two tropical countries with large areas under rainforests. These forests are untouched by human activities and have a high concentration of diverse flora and fauna. They’re also home to tigers, orangutans and other species that are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Companies that use palm oil in their products have been destroying these pristine rainforests because they need more land to grow oil palm trees. Deforestation leads to a decline in rich biodiversity, wildlife along with intensifying climate change. As palm oil is widely used across the global supply chains, the need to satisfy and profit off this high demand leads to irreversible damage to the environment.
Does “sustainable” palm oil exist?
In 2004, the palm oil industry set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO members accredit their palm oil as ‘Certified Sustainable’ and brands using this palm oil get to claim that their palm oil is ‘Sustainable’. Most supermarkets and many big consumer brands like Nestlé use RSPO palm oil in their products.
Despite the certifications, RSPO Palm Oil is not sustainable in the true sense. It took 14 years for the RSPO to ban its members from destroying forests – which it finally did in November 2018. Even with the ban on deforestation, they have still not enforced this new rule uniformly. Thus, they continue to destroy forests in the garb of sustainability and get away without any penalty.
Their actions have catastrophic consequences on the environment, forests, wildlife and local communities. In 2015, Indonesia’s forest fires crisis circled back to the palm oil issue as roughly three-quarters of the fires linked to palm oil companies were on RSPO members’ land. This means that so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil growers are – in some cases – at the forefront of Indonesia’s environmental crisis.
Some of the world’s biggest brands have promised to protect forests and clean up the palm oil industry. However, palm oil consumption grows unabated as only about 20% of palm oil is ‘Certified Sustainable’. Moreover, since economies of scale drive palm oil production and consumption, companies hardly have any effective incentives and deterrents to move away from it. In order to save Indonesia’s rainforests, corporations need to drastically reduce palm oil in their products. And any palm oil they do use must come from suppliers that are 100% deforestation-free.
Are there any alternatives for palm oil?
Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. To get the same amount of oil from alternatives like soybean or coconut, one would need 4-10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species. Furthermore, palm oil is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies and there are millions of small farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood.
Thus, suddenly stopping the use of palm oil is not a pragmatic solution. But demanding more action to scale up and adopt sustainable alternatives is the need of the hour. As year after year, actions of multinational companies result in vast deforestation, ocean oil spillage, plastic pollution, etc, fixing accountability on the defaulters is necessary. Greenwashing and disguising one’s harmful actions to appear more sustainable needs to be taken into account and penalised. It is important to stop the reckless exploitation of palm oil, but not at the cost of marginal farmers and their livelihood.
Article by Ruhi Nadkarni, Team ulaunch.