Palm oil is in a huge amount of products, from ice cream to shampoo. Many people actively avoid it due to environmental and ethical concerns, but could sustainable palm oil be a solution or is it greenwash? I take a look at the campaign highlighting the issue.
A new global campaign #GoodBadPalmOil has been launched to highlight the many consumer goods that contain palm oil and to create awareness that consumers have a choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ palm oil.
What’s the problem with palm oil?
It has become widely known that the production of ‘bad’ palm oil is causing rainforest deforestation and causing havoc in ecosystems, raising air pollution, causing habitat loss affecting people and wildlife and putting many species at risk of extinction, such as the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan.
“The story of palm oil starts in the rainforest, home to more than half of the world’s estimated 10m species of plants, animals and insects and seen as a potential source of cures for a range of diseases. Known as the ‘lungs of the planet’, rainforests recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. They also store water, prevent soil erosion and protect biodiversity. But they’re under serious threat.” –The Guardian
We’re trashing rainforests for cheap biscuits.
However, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), when palm oil is grown sustainably, it can benefit local communities with fair working conditions and actually help protect valuable species and forests. Many communities in rainforests rely on income generated form harvesting palm oil, but by using sustainable practices, farmers can increase their income by making more palm oil from less land.
Palm oil is found in a shocking 50% of the products that we buy, according to WWF. You might suspect that it will be in margarine and ready meals, but it’s also in shampoo and soap, lipstick and biscuits, cleaning products, bread and ice cream. It’s in baby food, pet food, pastry and deodorant. Around 70% of the world’s cosmetics and household detergents contain raw materials derived from palm oil. I’ve been completely shocked by this.
I had a look around my cupboards and even for a household that generally cooks from scratch, I still found palm oil lurking in many products. I also suspect that it’s in a lot more products that don’t have to label it. But in my products is it sustainable or not? Without certification logos I simply can’t tell. And would certification really make any difference?
Why is it so widely used? Well, it’s cheaper to produce than most other oils, palm oil is a high-yielding crop and it’s tasteless and makes things creamy. As long as it’s sustainably produced, it seems like quite a good product.
According to the PSPO, good palm oil = a palm plantation established on land that did not contain significant biodiversity, wildlife, habitats or other environmental values. It also means that it meets the highest environmental, social and economic standards as set out by the RSPO, according to their Principles and Criteria.
They say that when they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimise negative impacts. None of the products I found at home had this certification, but I can’t be sure if they’ve just not signed up to the scheme or if it’s unsustainable palm oil. I hope to see this logo more often in the future, like the Fairtrade logo, but in the meantime this palm oil guide will help you to avoid unsustainable palm oil products.
As a consumer, I find one of the puzzling things about palm oil is that although it is ubiquitous in pre-made products, it isn’t generally available for home cooking uses alongside rapeseed, vegetable and olive oils. I wonder why is it so widespread in commercial use, but not domestic use in the UK, though it is used in Africa and Asia. I suppose we want to cook with better products and not cheap filler. Cheap at the cost of the rainforests.
Why not use other oils instead?
It sounds like the answer would be to just use other oils such as sunflower or rapeseed, but according to RSPO, palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land, so much larger amounts of land would need to be used, creating similar, and possibly larger, environmental and social problems.
Boycotting products containing palm oil could cause companies to use alternative vegetable oils which take even more land to produce since palm oil can use up to 9 times less land for production. This could mean even more deforestation and loss of species.
RSPO has been working since 2004 to transform the palm oil industry to make sustainable palm oil the norm. They believe that achieving 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in Europe is both a realistic and vital ambition. They are working across the whole industry – from farmers to grocery stores – to get everyone working towards sustainable palm oil.
To me, I think avoiding mass produced food is important to our health and the health of the planet. I’d like to avoid palm oil completely. Sustainable palm oil would be great, but I wonder if it’s even possible. I’d like to see manufacturers listen to the public and turn their backs on palm oil completely. The next step would be to see mandatory labelling so that we, as consumers, know if the products that we’re buying contain good or bad palm oil.
Looking into this issue for this article, I found that I had more questions than answers. But one thing is certain, I’ll be looking at labels a bit more closely and becoming a more conscious consumer.
What are your thoughts on this? Share them in the comments below or on social media using #GoodBadPalmOil
Disclosure: RSPO commissioned this post for me to raise awareness of good palm oil. All opinions are my own. Images courtesy of Shutterstock.