The Secret Ingredient In Almost EVERYTHING You Use – Palm Oil!

Show Notes

Palm Oil

Want to know the secret ingredient in almost everything you use? Palm oil! It’s on about half of the products on your groceries shelves, but many of us don’t even know what it looks like! In this episode, we talk about the effects of palm oil on wildlife, our environment, and indigenous communities, and what you can do to help!

Palm Oil Use

Palm fruits grow in huge bunches close to the oil palm tree’s trunk and are consumed and harvested worldwide. From 2020-2021 global consumption was over 75 million metric tons. It’s on about half of the products on your groceries shelves – finding its way in your margarine, ice cream, chocolate, pizza, bread, and cooking oils; soaps, detergents, cosmetics, and cleaning products; and used as biofuels for transport, electricity, or heat. Estimates say that we each consume around 17 pounds of it every year. So most of us use it, but not many of us are familiar with what it looks like, or its roots are. Processing the palm oil fruit creates three significant products: crude palm oil, crude palm kernel oil, and palm kernel expeller, but we usually see crude palm oil used in many of our products.
There are a few things that make Palm Oil so unique:
sustainable living
So what’s the big deal about palm oil? You’ve probably seen people talk about how you shouldn’t use palm oil or unsustainably sourced palm oil, but why? Unfortunately, where there is profit, demand, and lack of regulations – it’s a recipe for disaster. Many have a bad taste in their mouth for palm oil because of the uncontrolled clearing of rainforests to convert them to oil palm cropland. The deforestation occurring is affecting wildlife, our environment, and indigenous communities. So let’s briefly talk about how the unsustainable production of palm oil is affecting each of those.

Wildlife

Clearing land and creating a monoculture reduces biodiversity in plants and animals, which can cause a slew of issues because we know that biodiversity keeps the world functioning as it should. Studies have shown that if the levels of deforestation continue at their current rate, regions in Southeast Asia could “lose up to three-quarters of its original forest cover by 2100.” Leading to the loss of “13%–42% of regional populations of all species, at least half of which would represent global species extinctions.”

In fact, harvesting these oil pams has already destroyed the natural habitat of many endangered species, like orangutans, birds, Asian elephants, Sumatran Tigers, and rhinos. According to the Orangutan Project, ”80 percent of orangutan habitats have been altered or lost” due to deforestation linked to oil palms.

Wildlife habitats have been destroyed with no plan to restore them, causing an uproar in the wildlife preservation community and beyond.

Environment

Deforestation due to palm oil also causes environmental issues. To put it in the most straightforward way I can, although there is a lot more to it – to clear rainforest land for oil palms, growers cut down valuable trees in the rainforest and then burn the rest to make way for planting more oil palms. And, many of these forest floors are on peatland, which are colossal carbon storage banks. So when they are burned, c02 is released into the air. Reports have shown that tropical deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change. Deforestation also affects soil composition and contributes to erosion, involving the local climate, including flooding. Burned biomass affects the air quality and visibility of the areas where this is happening. Environmentally speaking, these oil palms can absorb mass amounts of C02 and vastly produce oxygen. So they would be advantageous crops if other harmful factors like peat exploitation and biomass burning were not present. But right now, many processes surrounding palm oil production are unsustainable for our environment.

Communities

The palm oil industry is a huge source of employment for areas like Indonesia and Malaysia – contributing to positive economic development and increased infrastructure. However, this development negatively affects communities where they are uncompensated for the loss of access to forests many people have known for generations. And, loss of access can mean loss of home, as 45 million people live in forests in Indonesia alone, creating conflict when displaced from their homes for palm oil production.

The loss of these ancestral rainforests for palm oil cultivation affects indigenous communities in more ways than one. In an article by Humans Rights Watch, they state,

“Indigenous peoples have an intrinsic relationship with their environments. Their traditions, knowledge, and cultural identity are deeply connected to the natural environments in which they live. Any disruption to their natural environments… affects their culture, languages, knowledge, and unique traditions.“

Current production means that these communities have little land to farm and no land to forage. They lose their protection against floods and landslides. And as I mentioned, the slash and burn deforestation technique contribute to poor air quality and water pollution for the people who live there.

To add to this issue, the wildlife forced from their natural habitat enter human-inhabited areas, and conflict increases there, putting both at risk.

Sustainable palm oil?

Banning Palm Oil

So for something like a tiny red palm fruit, that’s all pretty heavy, right? It’s not the plant to be blamed or even the people working to make a living, but the farming practices and motivations around palm oil production are unsustainable and harmful to our planet.

But what would happen if we were like, okay, let’s ban palm oil right now until we get this figured out? Well, it would be likely that demand for other vegetable oils would drastically increase. Meaning it would take more land, more deforestation, and more habitat loss to meet the need. OR producers would potentially find new customers who care less about sustainability, and the cycle would continue. So, there’s no quick fix to this.

RSPO Certified Palm Oil

The next thought would be to increase sustainability in the process. The most well-known effort on this front comes in the RSPO or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in cooperation with the World Wildlife Foundation. RSPO.org says that meeting certified palm oil certification means participating companies meet a set of environmental and social criteria that aims at minimizing the negative impact of “palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.”

The RSPO has been criticized for not doing enough and even greenwashing. They still allow deforestation and do not address many negative production impacts past the production mills. And, certification is not required for producing palm oil, so only about 20% of producers participate. One article published in the National Academy of Sciences found that RSPO Certification did “significantly reduced deforestation, but not fire or peatland clearance, among participating plantations.” And “certification was mostly adopted in older plantations that contained little remaining forest.”

The RSPO needs broader adoption of this certification by oil palm growers to truly impact total forest lost due to oil palms. But for now, looking for RSPO certification while shopping can be a good indicator for consumers of a less harmful option for products that use palm oil. And these organizations need to be implementing incentives for agroforestry which has created higher yields sustainably while growing secondary crops and giving back to the land.

What You can do to help

You might think it seems complicated to try to make a difference about something that feels a world away. But the US is the 5th largest importer of palm oil, bringing it a little closer to home. As I mentioned, palm oil is in almost everything we use daily – so there are a few individual efforts we can take to try to do our part.

Reduce palm oil use

If you’re looking in the store and see a product with vegetable oil in the ingredient list with saturated fats – it is likely palm oil. Palm oil is listed as:

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol

As I mentioned, palm oil is cheap, and in many foods, so many people don’t have the option to cut it from their diet or other home products. But, if you are able to reduce non-food palm oil use – try looking for products free from these ingredients.

Demand transparency

If you’re searching online for products, the second thing you can do is to request transparency from brands on how their palm oil is sourced. Consumer demand for sustainably sourced palm oil will increase the pressure up the chain, and sustainable growers will be rewarded and hopefully grow in number.

Talk to others

The third thing you can do is talk to your friends and family about palm oil. Many people don’t know how intertwined it is in our daily lives and its effects on our planet. So sharing your information is vital.

Advocate for better practices

Finally, you can advocate for better practices in the palm oil industry by supporting organizations fighting for fair and equitable compensation for the communities at the frontlines of the palm oil industry and the wildlife that live there. A few organizations you can support:

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