What does soap, shampoo, lipstick and ice cream have in common? They all contain palm oil, a vegetable oil found in nearly half of all the products you can find in supermarkets. Global production and demand for palm oil is increasing rapidly, but this growth is causing the deforestation of tropical forests around the world. What else do you need to know about palm oil?
The origins of palm oil
Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to Southeast Asia a little over 100 years ago for decorative purposes. Now, 85% of the global supply of palm oil is in Indonesia and Malaysia, but at least 42 other countries also produce it. Particularly, plantations are spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In 2018, 77 million tonnes of it was produced globally, and this is expected to grow to 107.6 million tonnes by 2024.
Palm oil is in pretty much everything – from pizza, doughnuts, ice cream and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world.
Palm oil is incredibly popular because a lot of it can be grown at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils. It also has a lot of uses; it gives products a longer shelf-life, it makes spreads more spreadable, it helps to give fried products a more crispy and crunchy texture and it’s odourless and colourless so it doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. It’s also used as a cooking oil in some Asian and African countries.
So, What’s the Problem?
Firstly, large areas of tropical forests have been cleared to make room for oil palm plantations, destroying critical habitats for many endangered species – including rhinos, elephants and tigers. Even national parks haven’t been spared; 43% of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra – which was created to provide habitat for the Sumatran tiger – is now riddled with illegal palm oil plantations.
Besides this, burning forests to create plantations is also a source of greenhouse gas emissions. This damage causes soil erosion, which can lead to floods, water contamination, and landslides. Further, the pesticides and fertilisers used to encourage faster growth of the crop can pollute surface and groundwater sources.
What Can We Do?
Unfortunately, because palm oil is such an efficient crop, to get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut or sunflower oil, we would need anything between four and 10 times more land, making moving away from the crop really difficult.
While palm oil can be produced more sustainably, it’s still causing damage to the environment. Instead, we can choose products that use alternatives (LUSH has replaced it with a blend of rapeseed and coconut oil, for example), or use products with alternative ingredients, such as shea, sal, jojoba and mango kernels. However, these products may be slightly more expensive and difficult to find than those with palm oil.
We can also cut back on our meat consumption; since palm oil is used for animal feed, reducing the demand for meat or animal products would lower the demand for palm oil as well.
WWF has actually created a palm oil scorecard that ranks brands and retailers on how committed they are to sourcing sustainable palm oil free of deforestation and destruction of nature.
Palm oil isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. While alternatives are being created, we can start by changing our buying habits to be more sustainable.
See also: The Truth About… Fair Trade Coffee