Palm Oil: Understanding the Problem.

For years we’ve heard that palm oil is a problem. It is contributing to massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, endangering orangutans and tigers, contributing to major human rights abuses as indigenous land gets converted into plantations, and creating huge amounts of greenhouse gases through fire-based clearing. So, if palm oil is such a major issue for the environment and the people of Indonesia, then why is it still around? What are the more sustainable alternatives? And how can we live palm oil free?

The Problem: To understand the problem palm oil represents, let's go on a thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow, scientists discover a perfect plant to replace palm oil. This new plant is extremely high yield, grows easily in multiple continents, cooks extremely well without losing its properties, and is so versatile that a huge amount of products can incorporate this new super-plant into their production. Would this end the palm oil crisis? Technically yes, but we’d have the exact same crisis with that new plant instead.

The heart of the palm oil issue is just how good of a crop it is. It has higher yield than most every other plant oil, can grow basically anywhere that’s tropical, can be cooked with anything very easily at high temperatures, and can improve the consistency of many food items without affecting the taste, and it is even a key ingredient in many cosmetics. One especially tricky problem is that it even makes a great biofuel, putting us in the precarious situation of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels by increasing our dependence on deforestation in Indonesia.

Oftentimes a good environmentalist solution to a problem is to switch products, such as switching from coal power to wind power, or switching from plastic disposables to reusable alternatives, but that doesn’t really work with palm oil. First of all, if enough people were to switch from palm oil to another oil, such as coconut oil, it would just switch the problem over to coconut oil while also requiring even more land for the lower yield crop. And second, even if you wanted just to do it as a personal challenge, avoiding palm oil is one of the hardest things to do. Upwards of 50% of all grocery store products contain palm oil, making palm oil free challenges very difficult (and notice the other oils used in the challenge). Keep in mind that many products don’t even label “palm oil” on their ingredient lists.  Vegetable oil, Sodium Laureth Sulphate, Hydrated palm glycerides, Stearic Acid, etc. can all refer to palm oil. While we encourage people to try palm oil free challenges to bring awareness to the issue of palm oil, these types of challenges aren’t viable long term solutions.

Solutions: The way to end the issues surrounding palm oil are unfortunately not easy. They will require slow change and major shifts in industrial policy coordinated on a worldwide scale. Social media campaigns and efforts to change people’s habits are just not going to cut it, as this issue impacts too many industries at once. There are, however, actions we as consumers can take in the meantime that both increase awareness of the issues caused by palm oil and collectively pressure the world into making sustainable choices.

  • Support Sustainable Palm Oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Green Palm Sustainability are two major organizations working on developing and enforcing a palm oil sustainability standards. These initiatives seek to ban any new deforestation and to protect the indigenous people and their land rights, while producing palm oil in an ethical matter. Unfortunately, as many people in the know are already aware of, these organizations have issues. Between low standards, tough to source palm oil production, and dubious measurements for success such as providing jobs (if you use legal trickery to take the land out from an indigenous subsistence farmer, then give them low-wage and backbreaking plantation work on that land instead, you’re still “providing jobs”) these organizations get accused of greenwashing, and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean we should completely abandon the idea of Sustainable Palm Oil. Instead, we need to push these organizations to do sustainable palm oil better.
  • Promote labelling laws. Again, a huge issue with palm oil is just how hard it is to find on product labels. Product label laws are a simple way of giving consumers the power to choose not to use palm oil. Already the EU is making the push for clear, transparent labeling, and so other places around the world can and should follow suit.
  • Eating Slow. Finally, as always, because the so much of the issues with palm oil are identical with the issues surrounding the overall global culture of consumerism, the only way to reduce demand is to stop eating as much palm oil. Choosing to eat local, unprocessed food means you’ll be reducing your palm oil intake without simply replacing palm oil with another, equally as bad or worse processing oil. Vegetarianism or veganism will help too. Whether you’re going fully vegan or simply skipping meat one or two days a week, you’ll help reduce palm oil consumption simply because a huge amount of palm oil is used in animal feed. Choosing to eat no animal products can majorly cut your palm oil intake, even if all the vegetarian food you eat is palm oil processed, because you're reducing the amount of overall palm-oil food that's getting eaten. 

I hope this primer gave you a taste of why the problems surrounding palm oil are much more complicated than simply checking a label and switching a product. Hopefully you’ve learned something that you can pass onto the people you know, and be a part of the change for a better world. If you liked this article and want to keep up with more primers, sustainability news, or other information, be sure to follow our Facebook, Instagram, or check out the journal section of our website. And let us know your thoughts below!

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