You may have heard all about the palm oil boycotts – but are they warranted? The short answer is yes, but the long version is not quite so clear cut. Here’s everything you need to know about the dangers of palm oil and why it's not all bad.
From chocolate and ice cream to cleaning products, you might be surprised where palm oil shows up in your household staples. It’s made from the oil palm fruit, and includes both refined and unrefined palm oil. In terms of nutrition, the bulk of calories in a tablespoon of this oil comes from fat, but on the plus side, this small serve packs in 14% of your daily vitamin E needs. But the problem with palm oil isn’t its nutritional profile – it’s the effects its production is having on our wildlife and environment.
Palm oil’s rapid growth is attributed to the soaring demand for cheap, palatable vegetable oils in food and household products – fulfilling both of those criteria, it’s no surprise that palm oil now makes up a third of all veggie oils used around the world. Between 2000 and 2012, its production more than doubled, indicating that this popular oil is being rolled out at unprecedented rates.
But there’s a catch – one that has many environmental groups and climate-conscious individuals up in arms. Read on to find out exactly what’s wrong with palm oil.
What’s the big deal with palm oil?
Environmentalist groups and food companies have famously boycotted palm oil usage, with many groups campaigning against the production of this cheap oil and products proudly displaying their “palm oil-free” status – and they have a good reason for this. It comes down to its effects on the local wildlife populations, along with the consequences it poses for climate change.
Deforestation: The harvesting and production of palm oil has led to mass deforestation, and with 90% of the world’s palm oil trees found in Malaysia and Indonesia – home to some of the most biodiverse forests on the planet – this puts the local wildlife and plants at grave risk. But they’re not the only ones in danger – the smoke and carbon dioxide produced when forests are cleared to be used as palm oil plantations contribute to climate change. With our carbon emissions leading to a global warming increase of 45% between 1990 and 2019, it’s clear that palm oil production is no small issue.
Wildlife loss: During deforestation practices, many animals are left for dead – homeless and without a stable food source. Orangutans are one such species that are suffering due to palm oil production, with their population having decreased by 50%, along with 80% of their habitat lost or altered by deforestation. If that’s not bad enough, between 1000 and 5000 orangutan lives are lost every year, with palm oil plantations squarely responsible. With less of their natural habitat to hide in, orangutans and other animals – including Sumatran rhinos and Sumatran tigers – are put at even greater risk of being hunted.
Considering August 19th will mark International Orangutan Day, it’s the perfect time to make sure we’re not supporting unethical companies which are exploiting this critically endangered species.
So, should we boycott palm oil?
You don’t have to take palm oil off the menu completely! This is because palm oil isn’t actually all that unsustainable on its own; it’s the high demand and unethical practices that are causing strife for our wildlife and the planet as a whole. There are some products which use more ethically sourced palm oil, which are certified by the RSPO (Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil). This is an organisation which has created ethical and sustainable standards by which palm oil should be produced under to reduce the impact it has on our environment. If you're going to purchase products with palm oil, be sure to check for this certification.
Unfortunately, since a lot of the products on our supermarket shelves are not using sustainable palm oil, it’s often easier to try to avoid, or at least reduce, your consumption of this oil. This can be a challenge, considering how widespread its reach is – take a look at some of the products you’ll find palm oil in:
- Toothpaste, makeup and shampoo
- Washing detergent and soap
- Cakes and cookies – especially commercially-made ones
So, be sure to check the labels and do a little research before hitting the shops. Here is a palm oil-free product guide to get you started.