There has been a lot of talk about palm oil in recent users and for both good and bad reasons. In the case of palm oil, the bad is starting to outweigh the good and its important to be aware of what is going on. So let's dive in!
What is Palm Oil? How and Why do we use it?
Obtained from the fleshy fruit of oil palms, palm oil is an edible vegetable oil. Found in practically everything - from shampoo and soaps (Palmolive) to even doughnuts, palm oil is now the most common vegetable oil in the world—and also one of the world's leading deforestation drivers. Roughly 75 percent of palm oil is used for food, while the remainder is used for cosmetics, cleaning products and biofuels.
While oil palms are now grown in around 43 countries, the biggest oil palm plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN, the two countries occupy 6,033,868 hectares (32%) and 11,129,434 hectares (60%) of the total planted area of some 18.7 million hectares of industrial-scale oil palm currently planted around the world.
The global demand for vegetable oil is projected to hit 310 million tons in 2050. Palm oil currently contributes 35 percent of the total global vegetable oil demand, with India, China and Indonesia as the biggest consumers. Palm oil is also the most widely globally traded plant oil.
But what makes palm oil so special? Well, it's all about productivity and efficiency. The IUCN study found that oil palms need only one-ninth of land used by other vegetable oil crops. They're also a high-yielding crop and palm oil has low production costs. An oil palm produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than soybeans, rapeseed or sunflowers.
The Problem with Palm Oil: It's Catastrophic Environmental Impact
So if palm oil is so great and so widely used, what's the big deal? Why is there so much hue and cry about it? The problem lies in the staggering demand. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) forecasts, by 2020 the global demand for palm oil will double, and triple by 2050.
This ever-increasing demand for palm oil has led to unprecedented palm oil production in major palm oil-producing countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. But what could be wrong with that? Well, there's plenty of wrongs here.
Deforestation and its Effect on Biodiversity
The biggest and most glaring reason why palm oil has become such a problem is because of its devastating environmental impact. The problem is that to accommodate these palm oil plantations, tropical forests and peatlands are being destroyed. Globally, oil palm development causes less than 0.5% of all deforestation, but in parts of the tropics this can be much higher, e.g. up to 50%.
This rapid and increasing deforestation has had a significant impact on the wildlife residing in the rainforests. According to the IUCN, palm oil plantations directly threaten 193 of the world's critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable animal species, including the Sumatran and the Bornean orangutan.
Faced with a loss of habitat, human-wildlife conflict often increases. This causes trouble for the people residing and working in these plantations too. What's more, there are even cases of poor labour conditions and rampant exploitation of human labour.
But the bad news doesn't end here. As rainforests are cleared massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the air, indirectly helping increase global temperatures. The trees in rainforests, especially the old trees, are excellent carbon dioxide absorbers. Not to mention, rainforest soils hold roughly 45% of the world's terrestrial carbon. So cutting down rainforests is like releasing a carbon bomb of sorts.
Some palm oil growers burn their land to clear it. These fires, especially when they occur on peat, produce a considerable amount of smoke and toxic compounds. This hash negative impacts on people and wildlife. The smoke produced from such fires is rather likely to contribute to respiratory problems and can even lead to premature deaths.
What's the Solution?
Given its efficiency, it is unwise to completely abandon the use of palm oil. Instead, palm oil producers, governments and concerned organisations need to take a more environmentally conscious approach to answer global demands. A sustainable methodology needs to be followed that does more good and less harm.
As consumers, we all need to stay informed and aware of what is going on around us because we have the power to bring forth great change. For a better tomorrow, we need to be smarter today.