Sorry I’ve been pretty much AWOL from here for a couple of weeks. I burnt out, I’ve got to admit – things have been HECTIC.
But I have been reading up on things, continuing my eco-journey by educating myself. Which leads me to this article from The Guardian.
Worldwide production of palm oil has been climbing steadily for five decades. Between 1995 and 2015, annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes. Paul Tullis, ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’, The Guardian
Now I’ve been aware for a while of how bad palm oil is for the environment and have somewhat tried to avoid it. But I haven’t really been awake to the ins-and-outs of why palm oil is as bad as it is.
So this article was very enlightening. I want to try and outline the reasons that, accordingly to Paul Tullis, palm oil came to be a bit of a miracle ingredient, and through that an environmental nightmare:
- As a combination of different types of fats it is almost completely versatile, it can be used in baked goods, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, adhesives… the list goes on…
- On top of that it has ‘low production costs’ (due to the ease and quantity of which is can be grown in comparison to other seed oil) – meaning it’s as cheap as all hell.
- It’s a healthier additive to processed foods / as a cooking oil than the butters that preceded it. So when pressure was placed on the food industry to remove trans-fat and make products more heart-healthy, palm oil was a good solution.
- In light of the rise of animal rights campaigning and a desire to buy more ‘natural’ products, in cosmetic etc., palm oil has replaced animal-derived fats.
- It can be used as a bio-fuel:
A similar thing happened with biofuels – the intent to reduce environmental harm had unintended consequences. In 1997, a European commission reportcalled for increasing the percentage of total energy consumption from renewable sources. Paul Tullis, ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’, The Guardian
The good, the bad, and the humanitarian crisis
Can there be anything good about palm oil? Well, yeah in a way:
- Palm oil production is centralised in Malaysia and Indonesia, giving a boost to economy that was much needed. Palm oil accounts for ‘13.7% of Malaysia’s gross national income’, says Tullis. It has also aided in reducing poverty in the nation.
- In areas such as India, the use of palm oil is almost symbolic of the country’s economic growth. Studies have shown that national wealth increases, so does the consumption of fat. That being said, it has moved from being used as a cheap, accessible cooking oil to also being used as a staple of new junk food chains that have appeared in wake of the economic growth.
Between 1993 and 2013, Indian per capita GDP expanded from $298 to $1,452. Over the same period, fat consumption in rural areas grew by 35% and in urban areas by 25%, and palm oil has been a major ingredient in this escalation. Paul Tullis, ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’, The Guardian
So: economic growth, higher employment, a dependable wage, and more filling food – all very good things, all very necessary good things. How much can we weigh this against the very clearly bad side of palm oil?
In my opinion, whilst economic development in these countries is absolutely no bad thing, the fact is that the product, the contributing factor, isn’t sustainable. Demand is outgrowing production capacity, and just think about the consequence of very vital environments being razed to the ground. Eventually we’ll run out of area to chop and burn, they’ll be hundreds of thousands of animals killed, and ecosystems shattered. Resultantly, wouldn’t this cause an economic collapse? I’m not sure I can safely say, considering I have no experience in economics apart from paying my bills on time every month, but it seems like a tall, rickety tower.
- Pollution – when trees are burnt, a huge amount of carbon is released into the atmosphere.
- Deforestation – again just another example of how humanity thinks it can shape the earth with ignorance of the consequence its destruction brings. I don’t think I need to go on about how heart wrenchingly bad deforestation is for the environment. But here’s a link to National Geographic’s article – according to them 502,000 square miles of land has been lost between 1990 and 2016.
- Humanitarian issues – yes, palm oil can be associated with a global economic rise, yet children are working on the farms being paid barely more than a pittance…?
- ‘Sustainable palm oil’ – the idea of sustainability is a bit of a myth, as per the below quote. It doesn’t make sense to me that a mill can be classed as ‘sustainable’ but this doesn’t necessarily stretch to the raw ingredients… Additionally, standards of sustainability are set ridiculously low by the organisations governing it (the RSPO).
For instance, a product can earn a “certified sustainable” label even if 99% of the palm oil it includes came from freshly deforested land. Paul Tullis, ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’, The Guardian
Is it too late?
As the population of the world increases dangerously, so does the demand for resources such as palm oil. According to the article, demand will have nearly quadrupled by 2050. And it’s not easy to turn to other resources, especially considering these will mean deforestation still, but with less yield and more expense.
I think what shocked me most about the article, is how it’s also pointed out that schemes implemented by organisations, such as Iceland, have failed so far. It’s hard to not use palm oil – it’s going to take a long, sticky time to separate ourselves from the web of convenience it has created.
Additionally, the cost of labour on palm oil farms will increase… the boost in the economy ultimately means a class shift, with people having a steady income and accessing opportunities and products they weren’t able to before. It only makes sense that eventually there will be a demand for increased pay in line with their hard work on the farms and in the factories.
But that model isn’t sustainable. If things continue, the forests and their creatures will be gone, and the cost of labour will increase as some workers move up the economic ladder and realise there are better things they could be doing than picking fruit.Paul Tullis, ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’, The Guardian
So, what do I think?
Well, this article couldn’t have been more of a wake-up call for me if it had tried. I think, on a personal level, what I can do avoid buying anything with it in. This is already a bit stressful, I don’t know what I’m going to do about vegan spread – it always seems to have a high quantity of it in. At least I know why now.
Also, support organisations that are campaigning against deforestation. It isn’t sustainable, it’s a short-term benefit, it’s a long-term crisis. We can’t give back the ecosystems and lives we take away.
I hope this post was a bit helpful, the article was a bit meaty and I wanted something shorter to come back to when I needed a reminder of how bad palm oil is for us and the environment (one and the same, really). But I thought Tullis laid it all out there perfectly, nothing like statistics to make me feel all righteous and empowered – lol.
Let’s just avoid palm oil, shall we? Yeah, sounds like a good idea. Drive down that demand a bit and invest in finding sustainable alternatives that still prosper economic growth without pushing the environment into the pits (*desperately googles ‘sustainable alternatives to palm oil’*).