Life without palm oil: Utopia or the only way forward?

Friday, 21 May 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. But there are wide-ranging problems the palm oil industry has to step up to remedy to ensure more suitable and socially responsible production


By Dr. Prasanna J.P. Gunawardena

Despite palm oil being a highly controversial product, it is still highly prevalent. It can be found everywhere – in our foods, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuels. 

Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production. Palm oil plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity. 

The $ 93 billion palm oil industry is a source of huge profits for multinational corporations. Unfortunately, it also destroys the livelihoods of smallholders. Moreover, consumption of palm oil leads to the displacement of indigenous peoples, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. 

In Sri Lanka, locally known as “katupol”, oil palms were first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1968, and were first planted in Nakiyadeniya. In Sri Lanka the crop has successfully been cultivated locally for over 50 years. The country has around 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of palm plantations – just over 1% of the total area planted with tea, rubber and coconut. Sri Lankan palm oil is cultivated under highly regulated conditions, to ensure the industry is environmentally non-invasive. 

Sri Lanka produces just 23,000 tons of palm oil per annum and imports a staggering 250,000 tons of crude palm oil into the country each year. The palm oil industry currently employs about 13,000 people in cultivation, refining and production. Palm oil cultivation is already helping save valuable foreign exchange by reducing imports at a time the country is trying to conserve foreign currency. Sri Lanka is a top producer of coconut oil and palm oil could pose a threat to that sector.

Emotions have strongly dominated Sri Lanka’s public debate on palm oil and there are clear activists and lobbyists who are for or against palm oil cultivation in Sri Lanka.

In the light of the global consumption of palm tree oil expanding exponentially, an important and pressing question arises: ‘What can we do in everyday life to protect people and nature?’ The following article takes a detailed look at palm oil and explores its effects on health, the environment and sustainability as well answers the pressing question of how the impact can be mitigated. 

Why is palm oil everywhere?

At 66 million tons annually, palm oil beats all the other vegetable oils produced. Its low production price and properties have landed palm oil the central spot in food industry. It is used in half of all supermarket products in order to improve texture and taste, prevent melting and extend shelf life.

Seventy per cent of the global palm oil is used for food, either directly as vegetable oil or as an ingredient. Palm oil is also used for cooking because of its high smoke point, which means it is better suited for cooking foods at high temperatures. The other 30% is used in non-food industries, including biofuels and cosmetics.

Many ready-to-eat foods at the grocery store contain palm oil, such as peanut butter and coffee creamers, in many brands of ice cream, pizza dough, frozen foods, packaged soups, sauces, desserts, and snack foods, like cookies and chips, cereals, baked goods like bread, cookies and muffins, protein bars and diet bars, chocolate. In addition, palm oil can be found in some skincare and beauty products, make up, detergent, and soap.

Notably, almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biofuel. This is highly alarming considering that since 2009, the mandatory blending of biofuels into motor vehicle fuels has been a major cause of deforestation. 

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of palm oil trees, which typically thrive in balmy, tropical rainforests. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), 85% of the global supply of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. There are two types of palm oil: 1) crude palm oil (made by squeezing the fruit) and 2) kernel palm oil (made by crushing the kernel of the fruit). 

You may not find palm oil in the product description as it may be disguised in the list under one of its 200 other alternative names, including palmate, palmolein and sodium lauryl sulfate. Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil that has many different properties and functions which makes it so useful and so widely used. 

It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life; it is stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products.

Is palm oil bad for your health?

From a health perspective, there are clear pros and cons to palm oil.

The nutritional profile of palm oil is quite similar to other cooking oils. One tablespoon of palm oil, which is approximately 14 grams, contains 114 calories. It consists 100% fat of which seven grams are saturated fat, five grams monounsaturated fat and 1.5 grams polyunsaturated fat. 

Saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and chronic health conditions. However, palm oil has less saturated fat than other tropical oils, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil and it is also free of cholesterol. Still, even though palm oil does not contain trans-fat, it is high in saturated fat, which means it can boost unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides, raising the likelihood of heart disease. 

On the other hand, it also contains vitamin E and red palm oil contains antioxidants called carotenoids, which your body can convert into vitamin A. Furthermore, palm oil may help protect brain function, reduce heart disease risk factors. Yet, repeatedly reheating the oil may decrease its antioxidant capacity and contribute to the development of heart disease.

In conclusion, palm oil is healthier than some cooking fats and oils. Yet there are far healthier alternatives on the market such as olive oil.

Is it bad for the environment?

Another pressing question is whether palm oil is bad for the environment. According to FAO data, palm oil has contributed to an estimated 5% of deforestation in tropical areas. When looking at global deforestation, palm oil contributes to 2.3% of global deforestation.

Palm oil has been and continues to be a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. This inevitably leads to the destruction of habitats of many animas which include some endangered species such as the orang-utan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. 

The production of palm oil also causes the destruction of native landscapes causes changes in the whole ecosystem. Intensive cultivation methods result in soil pollution and erosion and water contamination. Deforestation is anticipated to have devastating effects on global warming, as the forests play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gasses by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. 

The loss of forest coupled with conversion of carbon rich peat soils are releasing out millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. At the same time, palm oil plantations do not have intercropping or undergrowth. Hence, they are strictly monoculture, and so do not support biodiversity. 

Furthermore, oil palm is extremely water intensive, requiring 280 to 350 litres of water per plant per day, while during the dry period with a relatively low rainfall, the freshwater consumption will be significantly higher. This situation led to fears that it could dry up local streams. The water quality has also greatly deteriorated. This now constitutes yet another grave challenge on the list of risks associated with oil palm cultivation, according to the latest researcher studies. 

Moreover, the production of palm oil also involves significant human rights violations such as child labour and forced labour. Palm oil corporations also violate the and ignore the basic principle of corporate social responsibility by clearing farmlands and forests without permission, paying low wages, providing unsafe working conditions, and significantly reducing the quality of life in the areas where they operate.

Thus, there is a whole host of wide-ranging problems that the palm oil industry has to step up to remedy to ensure more suitable and socially responsible production.

Why don’t we just switch to an alternative vegetable oil?

If there are so many challenges associated with the palm oil, why can we not switch to an alternative? The answer is simple: palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop.

Globally, palm oil accounts for 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between four and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species. 

Furthermore, there are some economic reasons for continuing the production of palm oil, as it is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies and there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood.

Should we boycott using palm oil altogether?

Considering how many products contain palm oil, boycotting it altogether is near impossible. It is difficult when looking at a palm oil product on a shelf to know if the oil has been produced in a way that is damaging the planet or not.

Many experts do not think that the right solution is to stop the production of palm oil. We should still produce and use palm oil – as it is more efficient to produce than alternative vegetable oils. Yet we absolutely must do more to make sure that the palm oil being bought and sold is sustainable and certified. 

A ban would not improve sustainability, neither from environmental nor from socioeconomic perspective. However, improved sustainability policies are essential in resolving this global challenge. Thus, instead of stopping the palm oil production altogether, the best solution seems to be to find sustainable palm oil when possible.

Not all is lost

In fact, recent official data suggests that deforestation has begun to slow. Palm oil plantation expansion in both Indonesia and Malaysia has been steadily declining in the past decade, after a rapid increase in the 2000s. This decline is, according to the WWF and WRI, the result of strengthened law enforcement, moratoria, certification of palm oil plantations and corporate zero-deforestation commitments. 

Government initiatives in Indonesia and Malaysia have introduced in the past years to combat deforestation, such as a permanent moratorium on primary forests and peatland conversion or stricter forest laws. In addition, corporate actions such as the No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation commitments (NDPE) have been introduced on an increasing scale by the palm oil industry.

What solutions are there?

In this light what solutions are there for mitigating the destructive impacts of palm oil production? 

Sri Lanka’s edible oil market has received considerable attention in recent weeks due to a series of events: it has imposed a ban on palm oil imports and ordered oil palm plantations in the country to be replaced with rubber trees and other environment-friendly crops over the next decade, citing adverse environmental and social impacts.

However, this is not enough, global demand for palm oil is set to continue to rise dramatically, from 66 million metric tons today to an estimated 264-447 million by 2050. The way we produce and consume the commodity needs to change. Considering the trail of environmental destruction its production has been leaving, palm oil may seem to be the enemy, but it can be produced responsibly. What we need is not an alternative to palm oil, but rather sustainably produced palm oil.

In 2004, the palm oil industry set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO represents the largest, independent, third-party standard for the more sustainable production of palm oil. RSPO members have their palm oil ‘certified sustainable’ and brands using this palm oil get to claim that their palm oil is ‘sustainable’. Certified palm oil protects the environment and the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods, so that palm oil can continue to play a key role in food security. However, today, certified oil still only represents 19% of global production.

The market for sustainable oil is growing but at a weak path. If used in isolation, certification cannot address all the negative impacts of palm oil. What we need is a multi-faceted approach involving all stakeholders. We all (producers, governments, consumers) have a role to play in creating a sustainable palm oil industry that does not harm forests, nature and people. For instance, consumers need to ask their favourite brands where they source their ingredients, to make sure they commit to certified sustainable palm oil. 

(The writer is Director EMEA at a Dutch corporate finance company. Previously he was a lecturer at People’s Friendship University of Russia and Senior Researcher at Van Hall Larenstein University, The Netherlands.)

Recent columns