For decades the palm oil industry flew under the radar, but thanks to documentaries like Before the Flood people have begun to learn more about it. That said, many are unsure of many things like what products contain palm oil, if there are palm oil benefits, if there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil, and of course the most common question- why is palm oil bad for the environment in general? So let’s get into it.
What is Palm Oil?
Despite palm oil being the most commonly used oil on the planet, few in the United States really know what it is or where it came from. The fact is that palm oil comes from the oil palm tree, which is native to western Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century however, the trees were brought for cosmetic reasons to southeast Asia. Today 85% of the palm oil on the market comes from either Indonesia or Malaysia.
How is Palm Oil Grown?
Palm oil is grown all year around as a monocrop. This means that farmers clear out rainforests and native species of plants (specifically in southeast Asia) in order to turn it all into palm oil plantations. This is done in a variety of ways, but most popular way is to burn down the rainforests (along with any species who live there).
How is Palm Oil Harvested?
There are two kinds of palm oils- crude and palm kernel. The crude palm oil is harvested by squeezing the fruit from the oil palm tree, and the palm kernel oil is extracted by crushing the pit of the fruit.
What is Palm Oil Used For and What Products Contain Palm Oil?
Palm oil is found in over 50% of packaged products in the United States, including popcorn, toothpaste, vegetable oil spreads, chips, lipstick, and bar soaps. It’s also used as fuel and put in animal feed all over the world. It’s a semi-solid oil at room temperature, making it valuable for things like keeping spreads spreadable and lipsticks usable. It’s also extremely stable, so it keeps packaged products from spoiling. Palm oil is also odorless and tasteless, so there is no limit to what it can be utilized in. In countries where it is grown, it’s also used as a cooking oil.
5 Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil
There are a lot of impacts to consider when thinking about if palm oil is sustainable. The oil is one of the most efficient oil crops, since a lot can be produced over very little land. That said, that’s where the environmental benefits stop. There are a lot of concerns raised about the societal impact of the palm oil industry (such as child labor and worker exploitation), but many want to know why palm oil is also bad for the environment. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Palm Oil Deforestation
Thanks to the slash and burn method of planting the palm oil crops, this leads to habitat destruction. Oil palm trees grow in tropical rainforests, meaning that in order to plant the trees, farmers end up burning down and clearing the other plants that exist there. In places like Indonesia, this is especially destructive. That rainforest is one of the three major rainforests left on the planet, and it’s home to many endangered species- including rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans. Because of the danger and death brought to the rainforest there, palm oil is the number one reason why orangutans are so critically endangered. Up to 5,000 of them are killed in the region every year. The palm industry doesn’t just destroy the land and native plants. Palm oil deforestation also kills those who rely on those spaces.
2. Wildlife Conflicts Caused by Palm Oil
Due to the destruction of habitats that the palm oil industry causes, this leads to the widespread dislocation of numerous species- including ones that don’t blend well with humans. This is causing increasing human-wildlife conflicts as more species are being crowded into smaller fragments of nature. In Sumatra alone, 43% of Tesso Nilo National Park has been illegally taken over by the industry, which has forced many large species to abandon the sanctuary that has so long been separate from human activity.
3. Soil Erosion at Palm Oil Plantations
Because monocrop agriculture strains the soil, palm oil plantations are severely eroding the land. This is causing more severe flooding and the muddying of freshwater systems nearby. The palm oil erosion isn’t just damaging to the ecosystem. It’s resulting in expensive and dangerous problems for locals, including the destruction of bridges and roads.
4. Palm Oil Pollutes the Air
The slash and burn method of planting the trees leads to severe air pollution and smoke. This devastates the health of residents who live even somewhat nearby, as well as kills local animals.
5. Palm Oil Climate Change
The method of clearing land to plant more oil palm trees also causes climate change. Not only does the palm oil industry destroy the largest land-based carbon sink on Earth (the rainforest in Indonesia). It also releases carbon dioxide into the air during the burning. It’s gotten to be so bad, that Indonesia is now the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
Are There Palm Oil Health Benefits?
While palm oil is devastating to the environment, there is some evidence that it does have health benefits- and health drawbacks. There are conflicting findings about the oil, but there are a few universally accepted truths by the medical community.
Palm Oil is Free of Trans Fat...Some of the Time
Palm oil doesn’t have any trans fat in it- an oil that the WHO wants to have banned by the end of next year. Consuming trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and developing type 2 diabetes. One of the big palm oil benefits is that it is free of it, but unfortunately this is not always true. When an oil is “partially hydrogenated”, like palm kernel oil is, it does contain it.
Palm Oil Has Vitamin E
Does Palm Oil Cause Cancer?
Studies have shown that if the oil is heated to a very high temperature, it can cause cancer. This is how palm oil is prepared when it is put into processed foods. While more palm oil cancer research is necessary, this process has been shown to create a cancer-causing product.
How Does Palm Oil Compare to Other Oils?
Palm Oil vs Coconut Oil
Both palm oil and coconut oil are very high in calories, but coconut oil has a little bit more in it. When it comes to fats, coconut oil consists of 99% fats, while palm oil is 100% fat. Palm oil contains more saturated fat in it, but a little more vitamin E. Both oils have very little minerals in them, but coconut oil has more iron, zinc, and calcium in it than palm oil does (although it is still in trace amounts). Many studies have also found that coconut oil helps mediate the effects of type 2 diabetes, whereas palm oil tends to cause it. Coconut oil is also shown to help prevent cancer (specifically oral and liver cancers), and is beneficial for those recovering from breast cancer chemotherapy. Palm oil is shown to either have no benefits, or to cause it altogether.
Is Palm Oil Healthy?
Among the other concerns discussed, palm oil is very high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol. This leads to a higher risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. Considering all of the health concerns and very little health benefits, you are pretty much better off consuming any other vegetable oil.
Should You Buy Palm Oil?
Many buy palm oil without realizing it, since it has over 50 other legal names that can be used on labels. If you buy anything processed, there is a 50% chance that palm oil is in it. But if you can avoid it, should you?
Is There Such a Thing as Sustainable Palm Oil?
There are many certifications out there, but just like the issues brought up with blood diamonds, it’s hard to regulate. Most of the time, consumers should steer away. That said, there is a RSPO certification that palm oil farmers can earn. This is third-party regulated, which is the most important element of any certification. This certification is only earned if farmers don’t deforest lands to produce palm oil, don’t violate human rights, and be transparent in their practices. These requirements can be vague however, so while it’s better than products without the RSPO label, it still leaves some room for unsustainable practices. If you have to buy palm oil for some reason, just try to get certified products.
What Oils Can You Buy Instead?
Any other oil is more sustainable than palm oil, so if you can something other than palm oil, you should. Olive oil, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil are all fantastic alternatives. Aim to purchase oils that are labeled as being organic, fair trade, and unrefined. It’s also important to avoid buying oils that come in plastic. If you have the choice between sunflower oil in a plastic bottle or olive oil in a glass one, go with the olive oil. Overall though? Just do your best.
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