Explained: Palm Oil

Palm Oil

We hear a lot about the negative impact of palm oil in the media. We know that it is threatening the orangutan and destroying habitats. However, this is a very basic level of understanding of something that is a very complex issue.

Palm oil is essentially an edible vegetable oil made from the fruit of the oil palm plant. It is very cheap to produce and have been widely used in food, medicine and manufacturing for centuries. The problem is not the product, it is very efficient. It is the crop with the highest yield of vegetable oil – which makes it appealing to local farmers.  It is the way that it is now farmed, on a huge scale, which is causing problems such as habitat and biodiversity loss.

In the modern world, palm oil production is synonymous with deforestation. To create the land needed for palm oil plantations, farmers and producers clear land in regions that are home to some of our most beautiful tropical rainforests which are rich in biodiversity. The clearing of this land is leading to huge problems of habitat loss, biodiversity decline and thus, an increase in the release of carbon into our atmosphere from the lost forests – which we all know is bad news for the climate crisis.

Orangutans have become the face of the fight against unsustainable palm oil. As a species they are only found in a select number of places on the planet. The destruction of the rainforests that they call home is endangering their survival, and those that they share their home with.

However, it is important to remember that there is a human face to this problem too. Farmers of palm oil who are simply trying to make a living and feed their families. They are not the villains here. There is a way to create a more sustainable option, but big corporations need to step up and take responsibility for how they source their products and the prices they pay to their workers. By simply boycotting palm oil, we are not dealing with the problem, we are punishing those that have little other choice of livelihoods. To make real change, we need to demand more from the corporations that are exploiting the situation. Ensure that our point is being made to the correct people, we don’t want to replace one issue with another. Poverty and loss of livelihood should sit no better with us than deforestation and species decline.

Environmental issues are the topic of our generation, and rightly so. More and more the consequences of our modern day lives are coming to the forefront of our consciousness, but it can be easy to become overwhelmed with so many terms and ideas being thrown around. The Curious Environmentalist was created to make environmental and conservation topics more accessible. My name is Rebecca, the founder of TCE, and as I am learning about the world around me and the problems it faces, I am sharing that knowledge in the hope that, together, we can make significant, long-term change.

This post was originally written by Rebecca Hansell for Small World, Big Cause in August 2020. It has been refreshed and edited for The Curious Environmentalist, October 2021. Enjoy!

Palm Oil
Explained: Palm Oil

So, what can we do? 

It is clear that this is a complex topic that will lead to much debate about the best way forward. There is endless reading that you can do on the internet to understand the details of this issue, which I encourage you to do if you so wish.

You can avoid palm oil.

You can also make your voice heard at the corporation who continue to use the devastating product (often hidden in the ingredients under other names).

You can educate yourself on the companies and products that are trying to use alternatives or who are sourcing sustainable palm oil, and who treat and pay their workers fairly.

This will help to reduce the need for evermore plantations, a living wage is not much to ask for.

It’s easy to get caught up in facts and figures – especially when they are this impressive – but, from a personal point of view, as someone who has taken part in Veganuary for the past few years – these are the real, everyday life benefits that I have found:

  • Zero food guilt. You can load up that plate as tall as you like! It’s all goodness.
  • Reduced bloating – this is a big thing for me, I have IBS and sometimes I look like I’m carrying twins?! Being bloat free is a breath of fresh air.
  • Thinking more about flavour. You can’t make that mid-week pasta tasty just by adding a tonne of cheddar on top, so you end up trying new ways and new ingredients to add flavour – which can be a joy when you discover something new that becomes a go-to staple.
  • Money in your pocket. If you think about what you are buying and you meal plan effectively then being vegan is CHEAP! Stash away the cash that you save and treat yourself, or those you love, to something a little bit special!

Many people ask if palm oil can ever be sustainable. This is a good question; the answer is yes. However, as always, it’s not necessarily that simple. For palm oil production to be truly sustainable, it needs to not be replacing rich and diverse rainforests with monoculture plantations. The plantations should be only grown on fallow and agriculturally usable land. The habitat of species such as the orangutan should be left to recover and should not be destroyed or fragmented beyond use. It is a difficult task to achieve and also difficult to monitor.

If, as consumers, we change our expectations and we make our voices heard that we will not tolerate the greed of big business any longer, then we can spur them into action. Nothing will change unless we make it known that we demand it.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a complex topic. I could write for pages and pages about the impact on human and animal communities and the intricacies that surround the way we handle this problem. I hope that this blog has given you an insight about the different ways to think about palm oil, and I encourage you to learn more.

Here are some useful links to help your continued learning: 

What is palm oil and why is it thought to be bad? BBC Newsround.

The Perils Of Palm Oil, Fix. 

The Problem With Palm Oil, Gaiam.

Can palm oil ever be sustainable? Technology Networks.

Palm oil boycotts not the answer. WWF.


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