The Price of Palm Oil

Palm Oil. Chances are you have heard of it and higher chances are you know, along with cattle ranching and soy crops, it’s causing major deforestation across some of the world’s most biodiverse and critically endangered forests. But with palm oil being used in over 50% of all products globally, the use of palm oil not only contributes to climate change, but is causing a devastating impact on ecosystems and biodiversity.

So, what is Palm Oil?

Palm Oil derives from a fleshy fruit grown originally in Africa and then populated across some parts of South-east Asia. Collectively these regions make up the majority of palm oil sold across the globe. The oil is either squeezed directly from the fleshy parts of the palm oil fruits, or palm kernel oil is extracted from grinding up the kernel or stone from the fruit. (8 things to know about palm oil, 2020)

(European Palm Oil Alliance, 2020)

Palm oil is favoured due to its highly versatile properties that help to keep spreads smooth and allows the ingredients to blend. It can give products a longer shelf life due to being oxidation resistant, and it is colourless and odourless, so it doesn’t impair a product’s smell or taste. (8 things to know about palm oil, 2020)

However, the harvesting of these crops severely impacts the ecosystems and the biodiversity of forests across the globe. With the risk of extinction from some of the most endangered species such as the Orangutan, Pygmy Elephant and Sumatran Rhino, the continued bulldozing and burning of the earth rainforests, which are considered to be the earths ‘lungs’ absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, vastly outweighs the positive properties of the product itself. Like many supply and demand chains, it is not the using of the products that are harmful, but the global demand for these products. A demand driven by low cost and profitable gain. However, the World Wildlife Foundations webpage tell us how boycotting palm oil isn’t the solution. Small hold farmers and the country’s economy rely on exporting products for their livelihood and income. The WWF also reports that palm oil supplies 35% of all oil demand globally and that switching to another vegetable oil would only increase the land per area from 4 to 10 times more land space, resulting in an increase of deforestation (8 things to know about palm oil, 2020).

There are a few organisations such as Mars, Pepsi-co, Nestle, Mondelez and Unilever now support farmers in their production of sustainably sourced palm oil.

(edie newsroom, 2016)

In 2012 the U.K government made the decision to only import 100% sustainably sourced palm oil for products and yet in 2016 it was reported that only 75% of palm oil imported into the UK was sustainable. According to the UK government document, ‘The UK has also been working with the Tropical Forest Alliance, a partnership with governments and companies such as Unilever to promote sustainability in the palm oil, paper, soya and beef industries, as these four commodities accounts for a large share of global deforestation’ (UK statement on sustainable palm oil: final progress report, 2017).

The UK government had mentioned in their manifesto called The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation created by the palm oil industry that set out  guidelines on the plantations and land use of palm oil, creating ‘sustainable’ palm oil that was better for the environment, ecology, biodiversity and their workers. Many UK supermarkets and companies such as those mentioned above such as Nestle and Mondelez will often state clearly on their packaging that they use sustainable palm oil (UK statement on sustainable palm oil: final progress report, 2017).

So, from chartable sites and government report, it reads that the issue isn’t to stop using or consuming products containing palm oil all together, but rather buying products that use sustainably sourced palm oil. In turn this will help to ensure fair trade for workers and sustainable farming, resulting in the reduction of the destruction on rainforests all across the globe, amazingly simple right? Wrong.

Wilfried Huismann, author of ‘Pandaleaks’, a book previously barred from publication in the UK, found that contributions to the charity WWF, comes from companies such as Coca-Cola and Marine Harvest. Amongst other brands, these corporations benefit from WWF’s ‘green image’ whilst making no environmental changes. The WWF created ‘”round tables”, which set the standard for how sustainable palm oil is certified and has become globally recognised for their criteria in palm oil production. Surely monetary influence from big corporations for the stamp of approval tarnishes the ethical and objective vision of sustainability, whilst as Huismann states the ‘political power that is too close to industry [is] in danger of becoming reliant on corporate money’ (Vidal, 2014).

In a damning report by Greenpeace, (George, 2019) companies such as Mars, PepsiCo, Nestle, Mondelez and Unilever were found to have reneged on their commitment to stop using palm oil that  promotes deforestation. Greenpeace released images in 2018 of clear-cutting in Papua, Indonesia estimated at 4,000 hectares of forest cleared due to consumer companies and palm oil traders (Ruiz, 2018). In 2019, these big named brands came under investigation due to large hazes of noxious gases caused by fires in July 2019, that cleared  the land and left millions of children at risk from air pollution and were ‘calculated to have released 360 million tonnes of CO2 between 1 August and 18 September’ (Gregory, n.d.). Not to mention each tropical tree housing an array of biodiverse ecosystems that were slaughtered due to this needless consumeristic product.

(Jakarta Animal Aid Network, n.d.)

Furthermore, it took RSPO members over 14 years to ban their own members from clearing forests only stopping this in 2018. Yet it still isn’t being enforced,  and RSPO members are still destroying rainforests. The 2019 Indonesian fire crisis, where RSPO certified palm oil traders were responsible for three-quarters of the fires, subsequently connected to palm oil companies on RSPO members’ land (George, 2019).What’s more, experts that had conducted fact finding mission for the past 15 years have found that ‘Palm-oil forests certified as sustainable are being destroyed faster than non-certified land’ and that ‘if governments do not act immediately and end acceptance of certification schemes, the world will almost completely lose southeast Asian forests in a few decades’  (Dolton, 2018).

Research associate, Professor Roberto Gatti went on to add that, ‘Tropical forests have an inner value, independently of the economy of their production’ And that’s the crucial and central ideology that is pivotal of this argument. How can we continue to buy into this cycle of exploitation when the impacts are as damning as these irrefutable facts? (Dolton, 2018).

So, who do we trust? How can we make changes to our consumer habits, when mega corporations are hoodwinking unsuspecting buyers into handing over their cash and in turn devastating our planets rainforests and ecosystems, exploiting work and child labour in those countries were their livelihoods depend

(Jakarta Animal Aid Network, n.d.)

 The Amazonian forest takes in 2 billion tons of carbon emissions a year, making it one of the most important resources of tackling climate change (Jean Kaiser, 2019).Ultimately, in reference to the argument of palm oil needing less land per area than other oil alternatives, Professor Gatti puts it best ‘ If this is true, my question is   why palm oil has to be considered an essential livelihood for humanity’ (Dolton, 2018). The Amazonian rainforest, amongst others is an ancient and timeless biodiverse land, that is imperative to the survival of not only its own biodiversity but fight against climate change- a man-made issue.

So, if boycotting palm oil isn’t the answer, what questions are we asking ourselves? Do you want to make an incredible contribution to the fight against climate change? The extinction of animals in their natural habitats or the human work conditions? The best thing you can do is seek to find alternative products that do not use palm oil. It just became a little easier. In 2017 an Australian initiative called Palm Oil-Free Accreditation Programme (POFAP) has been globally recognised in their fight to stop palm oil consumption and certify products that don’t use palm oil (Wheeler, 2019). However, a significant number of products do contain palm oil, and herein lies the problem alongside the solution- choice. What we choose to put into our trolleys and which we choose to leave out. And for the moment when we hesitate over the ethical elements of decision making, in favour for our favourite snack and the momentary pleasure on our taste buds, just think of the lives that exist and depend on the thriving existence of the Amazonian rainforest, amongst others, and just ask yourself, what choice do they have.

(the Guardian, 2018)

  1. Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. 2017. UK Statement On Sustainable Palm Oil: Final Progress Report. [online] Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/590473/palm-oil-final-report.pdf&gt; [Accessed 17 July 2020].
  2. Dolton, J., 2018. Certified Sustainable Palm Oil May Kill More Wildlife, Say Scientists. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/palm-oil-sustainable-certified-plantations-orangutans-indonesia-southeast-asia-greenwashing-purdue-a8674681.html&gt; [Accessed 8 July 2020].
  3. edie newsroom, 2016. Deforestation. [image] Available at: <https://www.edie.net/news/7/Unilever-cancels-palm-oil-sourcing-contracts-over-deforestation-concerns/&gt; [Accessed 10 July 2020].
  4. European Palm Oil Alliance, 2020. [image] Available at: <https://palmoilalliance.eu/facts-on-palm-oil/&gt; [Accessed 5 August 2020].
  5. George, R., 2019. 5 Problems With Sustainable Palm Oil. [online] Greenpeace.org.uk. Available at: <https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/5-problems-with-sustainable-palm-oil/&gt; [Accessed 17 July 2020].
  6. Gregory, A., n.d. Nestle And Unilever ‘Linked To Indonesian Forest Fires Engulfing Southeast Asia In Noxious Haze’. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/indonesia-forest-fires-palm-oil-nestle-unilever-pg-desforestation-slash-burn-a9195716.html&gt; [Accessed 5 July 2020].
  7. Jakarta Animal Aid Network, n.d. Infant Orangutan Clinging Onto Mothers Side. [image] Available at: <https://www.jakartaanimalaid.com/domesticcampaigns/save-dennis-save-the-rainforests/&gt; [Accessed 8 July 2020].
  8. Jakarta Animal Aid Network, n.d. Vast Landscape Of Broken And Burnt Trees.. [image] Available at: <https://www.jakartaanimalaid.com/domesticcampaigns/save-dennis-save-the-rainforests/&gt; [Accessed 8 July 2020].
  9. Jean Kaiser, A., 2019. AP Explains: Role Of The Amazon In Global Climate Change. [online] AP NEWS. Available at: <https://apnews.com/384fdb5ee7654667b53ddb49efce8023&gt; [Accessed 5 July 2020].
  10. National Geographic, 2018. Palm Oil Fruits Cupped In Hands.. [image] Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/12/palm-oil-destroying-rainforests-household-items/&gt; [Accessed 5 July 2020].
  11. Ruiz, D., 2018. Palm Oil Commitments Broken: Global Brands Linked To Massive Deforestation. [online] Greenpeace USA. Available at: <https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/palm-oil-commitments-broken-global-brands-linked-massive-deforestation/&gt; [Accessed 8 July 2020].
  12. the Guardian, 2018. [image] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/26/palm-oil-disastrous-for-wildlife-but-here-to-stay-experts-warn&gt; [Accessed 4 July 2020].
  13. Vidal, J., 2014. WWF International Accused Of ‘Selling Its Soul’ To Corporations. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/04/wwf-international-selling-its-soul-corporations&gt; [Accessed 15 July 2020].
  14. Wheeler, M., 2019. Palm Oil-Free Certification Trademark Goes Global | Food & Beverage. [online] Foodmag.com.au. Available at: <https://www.foodmag.com.au/palm-oil-free-certification-trademark-goes-global/&gt; [Accessed 17 July 2020].
  15. WWF. 2020. 8 Things To Know About Palm Oil. [online] Available at: <https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil&gt; [Accessed 3 July 2020].

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