Unless you’ve got Sherlock Holmes intuition, you probably come across it every day. It’s present in food, cosmetics, candles, biofuel. It is estimated that 10% of products found on supermarket shelves contain it – from margarine, chocolate, crisps and sweet spreads to body butters, shampoos and detergents. The palm oil issue, we are to discuss today, is a real one.
Palm oil has a wide range of applications due to its certain features. Above all, its production is cheap (the cheapest among all fats) and effective– both flesh and seeds of African oil palm contain over 70% of fat. Secondly, palm oil is one of the few vegetable oils with high concentration of saturated fat (up to 50%). Kept in room temperature, it maintains solid consistency, which makes it a perfect component of margarine, peanut butter and chocolate spread, as an alternative to hardened fats. Palm oil just doesn’t need hardening. On the other hand, due to its low melting point, palm oil is used as an ingredient of glazes, icings and creamy products. It is also used as an additive in biofuel production. It’s a rich source of palmitic acid (43,5%), and is, therefore, used in cosmetic and chemical industry for the production of soaps based on sodium and potassium palmitate. It can be found in lipsticks, lip glosses and many more creamy colour cosmetics.
All of the above-mentioned qualities render palm oil the most widely used vegetable fat worldwide.
40 billion dollars is an estimated 2012 income that enriched palm oil producers in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are its largest exporters. In 2008 the world consumed almost 50 million tons of palm oil, and according to FAO’s estimates – if this demand maintains such a rate of growth, by 2020 it will double, by 2030 – triple. In short, we consume enormous amounts of African oil palm fat. The biggest importers, according to WWF’s report, are Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Henkel.
What’s the problem then?
Crude palm oil has red or yellow colour (it’s rich in carotenes), contains a lot of vitamin E, a bit of phytosterols and several other important substances. However, it won’t appear as that in supermarkets. Before entering a shop, it goes through a refining process, as a result of which palm oil loses its colouring and smell, and is therefore a material ready to be put to a wide range of applications. Some data show a link between palm oil consumption and an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, but there hasn’t yet been an agreement as for its negative effects on health. In general, it’s better not to overuse it in ones diet due to the fact that palm oil has a high saturated fat content. Unrefined palm oil makes a perfect cosmetic with its moisturizing and antioxidant properties.
What comes to the fore in the palm oil issue, however, is not the dietary aspect.
Elaeis guineensis, the plant that is the source of palm oil, has specific needs and grows only in areas with permanent high levels of temperature and humidity. That is exactly the same area where rainforests grow. With the growing demand for palm oil its plantations are constantly being expanded, and when more land is needed, forests give way to palm oil cultivation. Between 2002 and 2012 Indonesia lost over 6 million hectares of primeval forests, which will never be recovered. Indonesia left Brazil far behind when it comes to the pace of deforestation – each year it loses ca 840 thousand hectares of forests (although a United Nations report claims it’s rather an acreage of 1.1 million hectares) while in Brazil this rate is half the size and remains at the level of ca 460 thousand hectares per year. In Indonesia alone palm oil plantations cover an area of 9 million hectares.
Deforestation brings severe consequences. Above all, it leads to biodiversity loss and puts many animal and plant species at risk of extinction. The worst is the situation of orangutans, tigers and Sumatran rhinoceros. The first species, critically endangered, is constantly losing its habitats due to the clearance of tree vegetation, which forces it to seek food on the plantations, where orangutans are nothing more that pests. In 2006 plantation workers killed 1500 specimens. According to the UN report, there’s every chance that by 2020, outside of protected areas, there won’t be any wild oarngutans at all.
Through deforestation not only oxygen producers are destroyed but also great amounts of CO2 are put into the atmosphere, for the biggest trees are cut down and the rest of them is simply burnt down. It’s said that one hectare of land treated this way equals a release of 6 thousand tons of CO2, which adds to the greenhouse gasses emissions. Introduction of monocultures over large areas involves soil erosion and its dehydration as well.
On the other hand, less than half of the palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia rests on the shoulders of small-scale farmers that cultivate not more 50 hectares of land. Those are mainly family businesses strongly supporting local communities. Without plantations those people will go back to poverty. There’s also another aspect of this matter, namely, the world’s need for fuels, and as for fossil fuels, their reserves are not endless. For the time being, palm oil stands as the best material for biodiesel.
So what now?
Estimates show that the production of palm oil solely for consumption purposes may be continued, conducted in stable form and with no harm to the nature. More problematic are estimates that count in plantations aiming at supplying the biofuels market.
As for palm oil the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Non-governmental organizations, such as Greenpeace or WWF, are in the right, waging war to protect nature – all in all, forests and species lost once are lost forever, and no profit should be a good enough justification for the devastation of the natural environment. On the contrary, producers’ arguments sound sensible as well. Were they to withdraw from palm oil usage, not only their products’ prices would shoot up but also they would have to search for a substitute. If synthetic substitutes of palm oil were produced and the industry used other oil plants, would it be more ecological? There’s no answer to this question. The main argument speaking in favour of palm oil usage is its great efficiency. Last but by no means least is the issue of biodiesel production, which must be continued, even though no one really knows how to balance it out.
What can I do?
When buying products containing palm oil, you can look for certificates on packets, such as Green Palm, which guarantee that it comes from sustainable plantations. You can keep up with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – an organization engaging stakeholders from various sectors of the industry, that aims at managing palm oil production in a sensible way, so that in complies with both ecological and business standards. You will find more about it here.
Steering clear of palm oil is relatively easy when it comes to food (since December 2014 in the EU legal regulations oblige producers to specify types of fat found in the product, so palm oil can no longer hide under the names vegetable oils/fats). In case of cosmetics and detergents there’re some obstacles to be faced – lists of ingredients show only the final chemical compounds, not raw materials from which they were obtained. Components such as cetearyl, stearyl, sodium laureth sulphate, or sodium dodecyl sulphate may or may not come from palm oil.
Although it seems unbelievable, Indonesia’s rainforests are home for 10% of all the world’s plant species, 16% of reptiles and amphibians, and 17% of all birds.
It would be a bit foolish to slaughter them all for the sake of palm oil, wouldn’t’ it?