Sowing disaster. How does palm oil affect the environment?

    08 Jun 2021

    If you have read the composition of cookies or other products, then at least once you have seen palm oil there. Let’s get to know what is it and discuss whether it’s environmentally friendly, with the help of Green Belarus article.

    Palm oil is big business. High yields, versatility, and nutritional value are just some of the reasons why oil palms have become a significant crop in the world.

    Palm oil is found in thousands of household goods, from cosmetics to biscuits, and can even be used to make biofuels. However, its production is quite harmful to the environment.

    The over-expansion of oil palm plantations, especially in Southeast Asia, which currently produces 85% of palm oil, poses an immediate threat to the region’s biodiversity.

    How did palm oil become so popular? How does growing oil palms affect the environment? And why is banning not the best solution? By answering these important questions, we will try to explain a complex and divisive environmental problem.

    What is palm oil and how is it made?

    The plant in question, Elaeis guineensis, is a palm species native to West Africa. This region, stretching from the Gambia to Angola, was formerly known as Guinea. This is where part of the scientific name of the plant came from.

    Palm fruits grow in large and dense clusters that can weigh up to 10 kilograms. There are actually two types of oil that can be extracted: crude palm oil is obtained by pressing the fleshy fruits, and palm kernel oil is obtained by grinding grain.

    Regardless of the method, the manufacturing process consists of four main stages:

    • separation of individual fruits from the bunch;
    • softening fruit pulp;
    • pressing to extract the oily liquid;
    • oil purification.

    The initial stages usually take place in the country of cultivation, and fractionation and refining take place after the export of raw materials. As you can imagine, this long process complicates the supply chain.

    Background and boom

    People have used oil palms for millennia: archaeological evidence found in Egyptian tombs dates back to 3000 BC.

    However, during the British Industrial Revolution, many centuries later, the first significant demand for this oil arose. At the time, it was mainly used in the manufacture of candles or as a lubricant for machines.

    As demand grew in the 20th century, European plantations were established in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. According to World Food History, in 1930, world production reached 25 million tons per year.

    But it was only at the end of the last century that the upward trend turned into a real boom. From 2000 to 2012, production almost doubled – from 30 to 50 million tons. Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, is expected to double its production by 2030.

    How has the palm oil trade grown?

    For many ethical shoppers, palm oil is already firmly blacklisted. So how did it become the preferred oil in so many industries?

    Well, the truth is, palm oil has many benefits. Since the 1990s, we have been aware of the relationship between trans fats and certain health risks such as heart disease. Consequently, palm oil, which is low in trans fats, has been used as an oil substitute in many processed foods.

    Besides the health benefits, it is a remarkably effective crop. It produces more oil per hectare than any other oilseed crop. “The oil palm produces about 35% of all vegetable oil, occupying an area 10% less than other oilseeds,” says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

    Given the potential for high and lucrative yields as well as its versatility, it’s no surprise that palm oil has become so popular. However, the rapid expansion of plantations in developing countries has had (and continues to have) disastrous consequences for biodiversity.

    How does palm oil production affect biodiversity?

    Even with high yields, global demand is so great that vast areas of rainforest and peatlands are continually cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. These actions are detrimental to the natural habitat, atmosphere, local wildlife, and people.

    When trees and peat are burned, large amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. Peatlands can contain 20 times more carbon than forests. They also contain methane. Not only are emissions causing global warming, but smoke from landscape fires are responsible for over 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia every year.

    Nearly 80% of orangutan habitats have disappeared in the past 20 years. Currently, more than 6,000 orangutans die each year as a result of the spread of oil palm.

    Of course, when entire ecosystems are destroyed, orangutans are not the only animals at risk. Other species include the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Malay bear, pygmy elephant, clouded panther, and proboscis monkey. Unfortunately, many of these species are already under threat of extinction, for example, the Sumatran tiger, whose number does not exceed 400 individuals.

    What can be done to stop this?

    In the face of such disruption, the obvious answer would be a ban on palm oil production or a boycott of palm oil products. However, as controversial as it sounds, ditching palm oil may not be a complete solution.

    One of the arguments put forward by conservation organizations including Conservation International and IUCN is that removing palm oil from the equation will not change the growing demand for edible oils and biofuels.

    Since the yields of other oilseeds are lower than those of the oil palm, replacing them is likely to exacerbate the problem as growers need more land. The problem is not with palm oil itself, but with how it is grown.

    In line with this approach, the Union of Concerned Scientists has outlined the following actions to be taken:

    Plantation planters increase yields and plant on degraded land.

    Governments formulate their biofuel policies to avoid unintended consequences and to ensure that critical climate targets are met.

    Palm oil companies are taking steps to ensure that none of their raw materials contribute to the deforestation of tropical forests or the proboscis of peatlands.

    Consumers have an impact

    There are now signs of a change in the industry. For example, non-profit organizations such as RSPO and POIG are working to facilitate dialogue between key stakeholders and promote more socially responsible and sustainable supply chains. However, it is clear that many large companies do not take sustainability issues seriously.

    In 2018, Greenpeace International published a report titled Final Countdown: Reforming the Palm Oil Industry Now or Never. Research links some of the world’s largest brands to rainforest destruction in Papua and Indonesia.

    In terms of legislative action, the European Union intends to phase out palm oil from transport fuels with a deadline of 2030. This decision was based on the results of a study funded by the European Commission that identified indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with its cultivation.

    Finally, there are consumers like you and me. Despite the growing public awareness of the environmental impact of palm oil, it is already clear how we can play our part to reduce the damage.

    For those looking to boycott palm oil products entirely, this is easier said than done. Just because you don’t see the words “palm oil” on the packaging doesn’t mean it’s not there. The manufacturer can simply indicate “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat”. Likewise, your cosmetics may contain oil palm-derived ingredients such as palmitate or stearic acid.

    Some responsible companies include symbols on their products so that consumers can buy products with the confidence that the ingredients come from sustainable plantations.

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