Palm oil may well be one of the most problematic ingredients in the supermarket – so why is it so popular?
It’s no secret that palm oil is controversial. Campaigns from environmental groups, petitions by concerned consumers and heart-breaking images of wildlife in jeopardy all aim to draw attention to the issue – so why is palm oil such a bad thing?
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is made from the fruits of trees called African oil palms, which are indigenous to Africa but are now grown in tropical rainforest areas in Asia, North America and South America as well. On the face of it, palm oil is a perfectly fine, natural ingredient – it’s our voracious appetite for it that’s the problem.
What is palm oil used for?
In short: almost everything. Palm oil is in close to half of the products we buy in supermarkets, from shampoos and skin creams to pizzas and chocolate – at one point the UK government was even considering using it in the new £20 notes. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel, particularly in developing countries. Some 54 million tonnes of the stuff was used in 2011.
Why is palm oil so popular?
As indicated by the fact that palm is in so many products, it’s a very versatile oil, and its properties mean it’s highly sought-after. It’s semi-solid at room temperature, so it keeps spreadable items spreadable. It’s resistant to oxidation so it gives products a longer shelf life. It’s stable at high temperature so it gives fried food items a crispy, crunchy texture. And it’s also odourless and colourless, so it doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products.
Most crucially, though, is the fact that it grows with minimum effort. It’s a perennial flower that will return year after year without having to be replanted, so in the eyes of manufacturers and big businesses, it offers lots of product benefits with hardly any downsides. But when it comes to the environment, there are a lot of downsides.
Why is palm oil seen as a bad thing?
Because so many parties want a piece of the palm oil pie, it’s in huge demand. As such, huge swathes of rainforests are being burned down to make way for oil palms. This destroys areas of important biodiversity, displaces and harms species such as orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers, and contributes to global warming as it means there are fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Furthermore, this deforestation leads to high levels of pollution, as burning so many trees creates a thick smog that’s dangerous for both the planet and people. For example, palm oil-related deforestation led to pollution in Singapore that was so bad children were ordered to stay indoors. And that’s not all. The creation of palm oil is also heavily linked to the exploitation of workers and child labour.
What are the alternatives to palm oil?
There are a number of alternatives to palm oil, but they come with their own environmental consequences – and none of them yet represent a ‘like-for-like’ substitute in terms of ease of growth and versatility. Other vegetable oils such as soy, rapeseed, and sunflower seed are often touted as an alternative, but reports have found that using these could actually result in more deforestation, not less, not to mention result in water use challenges associated with the intensive farming required to grow them at the same scale as palm oil.
And there are economic issues at hand, too. Palm oil is an important crop for the GDP of developing countries, and many small-hold and family-run farms depend on palm oil for their livelihood. As such, simply banning palm oil is not a feasible solution – instead, we must demand sustainable change to the way it is produced and used.
What’s the solution to the palm oil issue?
As a consumer, the most impactful thing you can do is to vote with your wallet. A number of stores and manufacturers – Iceland Foods, for example – have committed to completely eradicating palm oil from their supply chains. So if you can, choose palm oil-free products.
That said, the economy around palm oil is important to many growers and farmers around the world, so avoiding it completely isn’t necessarily an ideal solution. In 2004, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to create a production standard in best practice for producing and sourcing palm oil. Members of the group promised to adhere to strict guidelines to ensure palm oil’s continued use is as sustainable as possible. However, some companies try harder than others to honour these commitments. Check out WWF’s handy palm oil scorecard, which will tell you which brands are taking the right action on the issue.
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