The next time you head to the supermarket, think of what is in your shopping bag. Do you know exactly how many of these items contain palm oil or its derivatives?
Well, most of the items we use in our daily lives probably make use of palm oil in some way. These items can range from food products to non-consumables such as soap, cosmetics, lotion, or toothpaste. In fact, a staggering 58.84 million tons of palm oil are produced every year!
While we do not actually use raw palm oil itself, we all probably depend on palm oil in some form each day. However, the subject of palm oil can be a very controversial one. Some people believe that palm oil has contributed greatly to the rise of global warming and environmental issues, while others maintain that palm oil has brought about great opportunities and helped many people to establish new livelihoods. This brings about the question: is palm oil doing more harm or good?
Palm plantations typically produce higher yields of oil compared to other types, such as sunflower or olive oil. This results in less land area needed to produce the same amount of palm oil as other types of oil, which is both cheaper to maintain and more environmentally friendly. If we were to use other types of oil to replace palm oil, we would need three to four times the amount of land to farm an equivalent amount of oil. This is one reason why palm oil is so difficult to replace in our everyday products.
Partly due to the higher yield of palm plantations, palm oil tends to be cheaper than other forms of oil, making it a very cost-effective source for products that make use of oil. Most of our everyday items that contain oil make use of palm oil, simply because it has a longer shelf life and is much cheaper than other oil, which also helps in keeping the retail prices of products low.
Additionally, it is undeniable that palm oil has greatly changed the lives of many farmers. Due to its high demand, palm oil has made for a very lucrative business in recent years, requiring less work from farmers to produce more crops. Many farmers that used to live in poverty now find their living situations changed for the better from the extra income that palm oil has made them. Palm oil has also proved to be an excellent choice of investment for many larger companies because of its suitability and high demand, with its worth expected to grow to US $88 billion by the year 2022.
Unfortunately, large scale farming of palm oil can inadvertently lead to air pollution and haze. One efficient way to clear palm plantations and make way for new crops is to use the slash and burn method, which can result in forest fires spreading and culminating in haze that spreads to the surrounding countries. Sometimes, it can be easy for those affected by the bad air conditions to point the blame towards palm oil farming, but it is often not as clear cut as that. Many smallholder and individual-owned palm oil plantations employ the slash and burn agricultural method because they simply may not have the means to engage in more responsible land clearing.
Palm oil is also a cause of deforestation in some countries, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce about 85 percent of the world’s annual palm oil output. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), around 300 football fields of forests are cleared every hour in favor of farming palm oil – amounting to more than 2 million hectares per year! Although governments have set out to conserve the natural forests and made it illegal for smallholders to conduct deforestation to clear land for palm plantations, it can be difficult to control huge lands and the problem of deforestation still persists. Since there are many small corporations and individuals who run palm oil farms, placing an outright ban on deforestation can be difficult to enforce in reality. There are some non-profit organizations in place, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Oil (RSPO), that focus on promoting only palm oil farmed using sustainable practices – not deforestation.
Another undesirable result of palm oil plantations consists of the environmental and social consequences of farming palm oil. The move to convert large plots of land to palm oil plantations has destroyed many major habitats of native tribes and wildlife that used to reside in the forests. A number of tribes in particular have suffered from the constant haze surrounding the lands they live in, with breathing problems being a common ailment among their number and even some succumbing to particularly serious haze seasons. The wildlife, a source of food for them, has thinned in number due to the harsher environmental conditions. Natural processes have changed from what they were before. As such, the production of palm oil potentially violates community and worker rights in areas where they operate.
Despite the drawbacks, it seems unlikely that the situation with palm oil will change overnight, or even over years. The business is lucrative, and people will continue to work on palm oil plantations for a living.
This may cause some to wonder, can we boycott palm oil? It’s not impossible, but would probably take some dedication to skip the convenience of simply buying everyday items off of shelves. Realistically, this may not be very practical considering almost every modern product makes use of palm oil in some way.
However, there may actually be a solution to the issue of palm oil causing harm. Palm oil can be grown sustainably, which continues to profit palm oil firms while avoiding harming people or the environment.
The past few years have seen palm oil majors adopting certain policies when it comes to producing palm oil, namely no deforestation, no peat development and no exploitation, or NDPE for short. These policies usually apply across the companies’ entire supply chains, which include third party suppliers and smallholders.
Palm oil growers can be certified by RSPO to be sustainable after the organization has carefully inspected their supply chain. These palm oil firms can then claim that they sell RSPO-certified palm oil, which can motivate consumers to choose sustainable palm oil brands over non-certified ones.
Sustainable palm oil is slowly growing, currently making up about 12.07 million tons, or 21 percent of the world’s total palm oil supply. Most corporations that are members of RSPO are actively trying to achieve full certification for all the oil they produce. However, on the other hand, there are also a number of major palm oil firms that are not RSPO members at all.
Palm oil remains one of the world’s most controversial topics today, with both its advantages and disadvantages. For now, we can do our part by purchasing only products that contain RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil as a collective effort towards conserving our environment.
Dec 16, 2019