Green Tau: issue 27

15th December 2021

“Palm oil piece”

Palm oil comes from the palm oil tree which grows in tropical regions of the world. Its fruit – both flesh and kernel – are processed to extract the oil. The oil is attractive for many reasons. 

It contains no trans fats making it healthier than other oils.  It is a good (and affordable) source of vitamins A and E and antioxidants. It is resistant to oxidisation giving it, and things made with it, a long shelf life. It is a highly productive crop: where sunflowers produce 0.7 tonnes of oil per hectare, palm oil produces 4 or more tonnes. It can be used to make a wide range of products from soap to biscuits, toothpaste to icecream, lipsticks to pizzas, pet foods to chocolate. Some is also used as a bio fuel.

Not surprisingly it is in high demand. Global production has increased from about 2 million tonnes in 1960 to 70 + tonnes in 2018 (https://ourworldindata.org/palm-oil). Production on this scale has led to vast areas of land being repurposed for palm oil plantations – with individual plantations covering 10,000 hectares (approximately 10,000 international rugby pitches or a little smaller than Jersey).  

Monoculture on this scale comes with many environmental issues, that lead to droughts, wild fires and flooding – and require widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides which pollute both water supplies and the air.  These detrimental effects are further compounded when the land cultivated involves the destruction of native forests. An estimates 5% of tropical deforestation is attributable directly to oil palm plantations  although on a positive note, the annual loss is decreasing as countries and companies respond to public criticism (https://palmoilalliance.eu/palm-oil-deforestation/).

In places such as Borne and Sumatra much of the land is covered with virgin forest which is home to many plant and animal species and notable home to large mammals such as orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants. Expansion of human enterprises removed the equivalent large mammals many centuries ago. One hopes that we will not allow the same to happen again.

On the other hand palm oil production is an important cash crop for many developing economies. As with the cultivation of cocoa beans (https://greentau.org/2021/12/11/green-tau-issue-26/) the profitability of this crop often does not benefit the workers on the ground. In response to both this and the threat to biodiversity – especially orangutans – some consumers and manufacturers actively avoid palm oil. The following logos are used  by

https://www.palmoilfreecertification.org/

Iceland Foods and the https://orangutanalliance.org/

Ethical Consumer has produced a list of manufacturers who avoid the use of palm oil – or use  sustainably sourced palm oil: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/palm-oil/palm-oil-free-list

The main industry certification scheme for sustainable palm oil is provided by

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. However its scheme is not always transparent, and includes companies who are working towards sustainable production. As with cocoa beans, companies can use the certification if they pay the premium that pays for sustainable production somewhere within the supply chain. For more information see https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/food-drink/what-rspo

Traidcraft for one, did not feel that RSPO assured a fair trade product. They have established their own small scale certification platform, Fair Palm through their work with Serendipalm in Ghana. Here oil palm growers use regenerative farming techniques growing a mix of trees and shrubs that provides a range of sustainable – organically grown – crops. In addition the processing of the palm oil fruits is kept small scale so as to employ people rather than automated machines. This video clip shows the process of change from monoculture to agroforestry:  https://youtu.be/moRmOu634rk

If consumer power has already seen a reduction in the rate of deforestation , continuing consumer power should be able to demand truly sustainable and fairly traded palm oil. Careful research will be needed  as the presence of palm oil products may not always be obvious. Palm oil may be hidden under the general title of ‘vegetable oil’ or may be given a chemical name such as aluminium stearate, ammonium Lauretta sulphate, capric glyceride, or ascobyl palmitate. Ethical Comsumer’s palm oil list will help you evaluate which products you wish to buy and which you might prefer to avoid. 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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