Yesterday I woke up feeling a cold coming, I had a job interview for a position that I don’t particularly want, I went to the gym only to discover that I’d forgotten my shoes, and I spent the rest of the day wrapped in a blanket whining and being a general pain in the butt.I don’t have a job and I also currently don’t have much will to live, however if there’s something I do have it’s time. Today I don’t feel any better, so I decided to not waste another day complaining about my maladies but to do something productive instead. So I came to the library and did some research on palm oil.
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit. It is the cheapest vegetable oil in the world, and a huge source of profits for multinational corporations who make a profit at the expenses of the environment, the native people, and the wildlife of the rain forest in South East Asia. The palm oil industry is one of the most environmental offenders on the planet. It is one of the main causes of deforestation, carbon dioxide emissions, and decline of endangered wildlife. After reading this article and many more, I hereby argue that the palm oil industry affects the entire planet. Palm oil is bad for the environment, bad for the animas, bad for the people, and bad for you.
1. The environment
In 2015, over 62,000 square miles around the world were committed to pail oil plantation (ref). 85% of the world palm oil supply comes from South East Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia). In Sumatra, 80% of the rain forest is gone – burned to the ground to generate space for palm oil plantations. As explained in Before the Flood, Indonesia is one of the most corrupted countries in the world. Colossal companies such as Pepsi, Kellogg’s, L’Oréal, Procter&Gamble and many more are able to make profit by bribing the government to issue a permit for them to burn the land. So far there are no restrictions or regulation from the governments to prevent these corporations from doing what they’re doing. The biggest damage palm oil plantations are causing is a dangerously large amount of carbon dioxide emissions. The video mentioned above explains that Indonesia peat lands store about 35 billion tonnes of carbon. When the land is burned to create space for plantations, that carbon is released into the atmosphere. In 2015, fires added more than 2 billion tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Normally, trees would absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, but if we set fire to the forests we release carbon back into the atmosphere, meaning we are producing excessive emissions and destroying the only natural filters we have at the same time.
2. The People
An estimated 3.5 million people work in the palm oil industry. While providing employment can be favourable in Third World countries, the expansion of the palm oil industry often means that these people have no choice but to work for it – at a potentially high cost. Human rights abuse is a daily occurrence in the palm oil industry: workers are forced to operate in an unhealthy environment with inadequate safety equipment, climbing up trees and spraying pesticides that cause health damages. They are underpaid and have no medical coverage or any other benefits. Child labour is not uncommon. Working in the palm oil industry often translates to modern day slavery.
3. The animals
Indonesia is home to 15% of all known species of birds, plants and mammals. The Leuser ecosystem is “the last place on Earth that still has elephant, rhino, orangutan and tiger together in the wild” (ref). However, both the Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhino are now facing the threaten of extinction. In Borneo, the orangutan population has decreased by 50% in the past 65 years. It is CRAZY to me that people would go so far as to decimate another species for their own interest. It is shocking and outrageous and unbelievable that humans would consider it to be ok to erase other living creatures from their natural habitat. The idea that our successors might not be able to ever get to see tigers, rhinos, and other majestic creatures because we have wiped them out of this world fills me with guilt and shame. Anyway. The good news is, there are organisations like PanEco which, through their conservation programme, are doing a great job at preventing the orangis from dying out and protecting their habitat.
4. Our health
As every other oil, palm oil should be consumed in moderation. That said, palm oil does have some health benefits: it reduces blood pressure as well as the risk of arterial thrombosis, it doesn’t contain artery-clogging trans fats and it’s rich in natural antioxidants, including vitamins A and E. However, this is true of palm oil only when consumed as a fresh food. Turns out that palm oil that hasn’t been heavily refined is very hard to get hold of: the palm oil that we normally consume is oxidised (or processed). Such palm oil is high in saturated fats – in fact, it contains as much saturated fats as butter. Saturated fats are considered to be the most detrimental to human health. Palm oil is particularly rich in palmitic acid, which is one of the fats most likely to cause cholesterol clumps in arteries. As this article explains, “palm oil causes low-grade inflammation that is linked to insulin resistance, obesity and other metabolic diseases that are partially mediated by our resident gut microbes.” A research on mice showed that “compared to a high-fat diet formulated with either milk fat, rapeseed oil, or sunflower oil, one that includes palm oil resulted in higher inflammation in plasma and adipose tissue” (ref). Processed palm oil poses health dangers such as reproductive toxicity and organ toxicity, impacting organs such as the heart, kidneys , liver and lungs. Finally, according to this article, “the refining process depletes many of the nutrients that occur naturally in the oil and also makes the oil much more difficult to digest” - but at this point this is probably the last of our problems.
Palm oil is virtually everywhere: processed foods, chocolate bars, crackers, margarines, soups, as well as non-food products such as soaps, deodorants, detergents and cosmetics. The problem is, palm oil is not always easy to spot. Often disguised under as many as 200 other names, it can be tricky for consumers to identify it, especially when you think that “under current European legislation, companies are under no obligation to state whether or not their products contain palm oil specifically, as it currently permits palm oil to be stated in the ingredients as ‘vegetable oil’” (ref). (I’m not sure about regulations in the US, the UK and other parts of the world.) Most of the time consumers don’t think about what’s in the food or products they buy. How often do you take the time to read the ingredient label at the supermarket? (Unless you’re a vegan, heehee.) But checking what’s in what you buy is the first step towards being more informed and aware of your choices. Educating yourself is critical. This might sound like an overwhelming issue, but it’s one that can – and has to – be addressed by us as individuals. As individuals, we can stop this. Every time we buy, eat or consume a particular product, we have the power to choose whether we want to support the palm oil industry or not. The decisions that we make on a day-to-day basis in the comfort of our household have an impact on the other side of the world: they affect the ecosystem, the people, and ultimately the whole planet.
You can check whether your favourite products contain palm oil or not here and here. Also have a look at what the WWF and the Union of Concerned Scientists have to say on the matter, and test your knowledge on palm oil on TakePart.