Palm oil is used in the food industry to fry foods and as ingredients in a wide range of foods including biscuits, margarine, snacks and baked foods. It’s also used in the production of biodiesel, animal feed, soap, shampoo, shaving gel, cleaning products and cosmetics. Palm oil is big business – found in around half of all items on supermarket shelves.
Most oil palms grow in areas that were once tropical forests. Fires set in forests and on carbon-rich peatland to quickly clear land for plantations lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions with impacts seen at a regional and even global scale.
The vast majority of the world’s oil palms are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands containing some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth. The expansion of plantations into tropical forests has led to a huge loss of biodiversity with substantial numbers of elephants, rhinos, tigers and orangutans losing their homes. The negative impact on orangutans in particular has been well-documented and now both Bornean and Sumatran species are critically endangered.
The main organisation responsible for the certification of sustainable palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), made up of producers, processors and traders, manufacturers, retailers, investors and NGOs. Around a fifth of the world’s palm oil is certified by the RSPO. Concerns have been raised about the monitoring and enforcement of standards for RSPO certification. For example, RSPO standards do not prohibit deforestation or clearance of peatlands, nor do they require protection of landscapes with high carbon stocks. The RSPO say they are trying to clean up their act – they have expelled two companies accused of malpractice and introduced an auditor registry in partnership with a third-party oversight body.
Some companies say the palm oil they buy is not linked to deforestation. However, many are unable to say with confidence that the palm oil they use is not driving the destruction of rainforests or threatening endangered species.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supports collaboration between the international conservation community and palm oil developers in order to create sustainable strategies that will save fragile ecosystems and the species that inhabit them. Their 2016 report, Palm Oil Paradox: Sustainable Solutions to Save the Great Apes, includes steps required to ensure that the loss of biodiversity that has occurred in Southeast Asia are not repeated as oil palm plantations now expand into Africa.
Sustainable production of palm oil must include solid promises that any expansion growth does not come at the expense of forest habitats through direct or indirect deforestation.
Government regulation and public pressure are required to ensure that palm oil production and the expansion of oil palm plantations occurs in ways that protect biodiversity-rich ecosystems and prevents further deforestation. The scale of demand for palm oil is also a big issue as it’s now used in more products than ever before. The power you have is to vote with your wallet!
For more details and references see: www.viva.org.uk/environment-report/palm-oil
Practical hints and tips
If you want to reduce your palm oil consumption, here are a few suggestions:
- Use the most ethical brand of margarine you can afford. This is Ethical Consumer's breakdown of all the major brands: www.ethicalconsumer.org/buyersguides/food/margarineandspreads.aspx At the time of writing (October 2018) the only palm-oil-free margarine on the market is by a brand called Naturli.
- Reduce your use of items that contain palm oil – eg margarine, biscuits, ready-made pastry etc. www.ethicalconsumer.org/shoppingethically/palmoilfreelist.aspx
- Replace margarine with nut and seed butters (eg cashew and almond butter or tahini). Avoid those brands of peanut butter that include palm oil and buy a more ‘wholefood’ version.
- Make your own vegan butter - Vegan Recipe Club recipe coming soon!
- Use organic coconut oil – use sparingly as it is very high in saturated fat – but can be useful in cakes and for frying.
- Use oil in home baking – most cakes work fine with plain vegetable or rapeseed oil instead of margarine. We’ve got plenty of margarine-free cake recipes on the Vegan Recipe Club, for example:
- Make your own pastry using oil or palm oil-free margarine.
- If you have time, cooking from scratch and avoiding certain types of ready-made food and junk food will help. Clearly, this isn’t always possible, particularly if you lead a very busy life or travel a lot, but make a start at something you can do and work from that.