Let’s talk about palm oil

Palm oil is everywhere. In your food, in your cosmetics, in your pizza from the supermarket, in the candles and the list could be endless. In fact, we are currently using 60 millions tons of palm oil per year. Which makes palm oil the most used vegetable fat and the cheapest one. Nowadays almost everyone is talking about palm oil, but only a few actually know what is behind it and why it is one of the leading products, which destroys our planet.

“We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil” said France’s ecology minister, Ségolène Royal in the year 2015. It kicked off a discussion about palm oil and if we can eat it with a clear conscience or not. Unfortunately Royal apologized for this sentence afterward and also the public attention got drawn away a bit. The palm oil consumption has more than doubled in the last twenty years and it doesn’t look like we are coming to an end using it. But why is it such a critical ingredient?

It affects Our Planet/climate

Palm oil plantations are built on rainforest soil. Preferably on a peat bog. Those up to 8000-year-old rainforests store up to 6000 tons of carbon per hectare – 50 times as much as a rainforest without peat bog can store. If peat bog forest is destroyed for the oil palms, the dried out peat decays or burns. Huge amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 escape into the air. In 2006, for example, peat fires in Indonesia alone released up to 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is more than the sum of all CO2 emissions of Germany in the same year.

Animals get killed

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Half of the oil comes from here. Unfortunately, the rainforests of Indonesia are also among the most important in our world. For example, they are home for around 15% of our plants and animals. But this habitat is destroyed by deforestation and fires. In 1990, two-thirds of the island was still covered with forest, but by 2015 it had already been half covered. Palm oil plantations need space and the 60 million tons palm oil have to come from somewhere. The most famous victim is probably the orangutan, but also other animals (such as tigers and monkeys) are losing their livelihood and have nowhere else to go. In addition to destroying their habitat, the endangered species face another threat: orangutans, which damage the palm fruits in plantations, can be hunted and killed.

People get exploited

In 2016 Amnesty documented working conditions on palm oil plantations in Indonesia in the report “The Great Palm Oil Scandal – Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names“. Those include forced and child labor, discrimination against women, and exploitative and dangerous labor practices that endanger workers’ health. These are not individual cases, but systematic business practices.

Why sustainable palm oil is also problematic

There is no palm oil which you really can say is sustainable.  Products containing  RSPO-certified palm oil are often declared sustainable. The Round Table for Sustainable Development
Palm oil (RSPO) is a worldwide certification system. Approx. 20% of the palm oil is certified according to their guidelines. The RSPO was founded in 2004 by Unilever. However, the criteria and standards of the RSPO are unfortunately poor and on a voluntary basis. For example, using peat soils is not prohibited. Deforestation is permitted. There can be no sustainable palm oil in such growing quantities, as described above.

What can you do

For me, the only consequences are to not use palm oil to the best of my knowledge, but this can be already a challenge. Usually, palm oil is clearly identified and recognizable on the list of ingredients, at least in food. The problem lies in the cosmetics and detergents sector, as there is no obligation to declare it. In order to find out which products contain palm oil contains, there are two possibilities:

  • With the app “CodeCheck” you can check products directly if they contain palm oil or not.
  • Or try to check the ingredients yourself. Palm oil is usually as well declared as Glycerin, Lauroyl, or Stereate

If you have more ideas, please leave a comment below.

Thank you for reading this long article and for being interested in this topic. I do believe if everyone is just doing a little bit, we can already achieve a lot in the world!

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