What is palm oil?
It is a vegetable oil, like sunflower or rape-seed oil but deriving from the palm fruit. Palm oil is almost exclusively grown in the tropics, with the vast majority grown in Malaysia and Indonesia (85% of global production).
One of the main attributes of palm oil is that it is semi-solid at room temperature. This is unique because most plant oils need to undergo a process called “hydrogenation” to make them more solid at room temperature. This process of hydrogenation creates trans-fatty acids, which the World Health Organisation estimates is responsible for around 500,000 deaths per year. Palm oil does not need to undergo hydrogenation due to it already being semi-solid at room temperature. This makes it a handy product to use both in cosmetics (where it is used to increase the viscosity of products) as well as in food (reducing the trans-fatty contents of food items).
This increased consumption of palm oil and the increasing reliance on them in our foods, cosmetics and nowadays even “biofuels” is having a huge impact on the environment.
We are all too familiar with the environmental impacts surrounding palm oil:
1) Deforestation and Climate Change
- In just 25 years, more than a quarter of Indonesia’s forests – 76 million acres, an area almost the size of Germany – have disappeared. Driven primarily by the demand for palm oil production. This has negative impacts on essential ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, water purification and soil formation and stability, which all species, including people, rely on to provide clean air, soil and water.
- Tropical deforestation and the draining and burning of carbon-rich peatlands to make land available for oil palm plantations is a significant source of emissions. (10% of annual global carbon emissions can be linked to deforestation in the tropics).
- Forest fires to clear areas of vegetation to plant oil palm are another major source of emissions. The practice of deliberately burning vegetation fertilises the soil for agricultural purposes but also releases carbon dioxide.
2) Biodiversity Loss
Land clearance for plantations damages important wildlife habitats, leading to a high loss of species. The species these forests support are highly adapted to rainforest habitats and are often unique to those areas. Plantations cannot sustain life and are not a sufficient habitat for most species (only around 15% of forest species can survive in plantations).
3) Land and water pollution
For every metric tonne of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tonnes of palm oil mill effluent (POME) is generated from the milling process. This gets released along with all the additional fertiliser and pesticides used to treat the palm oil crop into the local waterways. Highly acidic environments are created which seriously harms aquatic life.
However, one problem raised is that there aren’t clear alternatives to palm oil. There simply isn’t another alternative that can be used on the same scale as palm oil without having similar environmental (and social) impacts.
Palm oil is also very economical to grow. It is ten times more productive than Soy Bean for example and nine times more productive per hectare than the next commercial plant oil. Therefore, any plant oil used to replace it would be even more damaging on the land than palm oil is.
What Can We Do as Consumers?
Of course, the growing use of palm oil and in fact other vegetable oils is linked to the increasing amount of processed foods consumed in the West. This demand seems likely to increase as the population increases. With the complex set of issues related to palm oil, it seems reasonable to either avoid palm oil altogether or choose products with the very best sustainability certifications.
In the following articles, we will look at unlikely products that contain palm oil, understanding labelling and certification of the palm oil industry as well as handy tips on how to detect palm oil in cosmetics.