Palm oil: a slippery issue

Palm oil is in 50% of supermarket food in the UK, including Ben & Jerry’s, Pot Noodle, Crunchy Nut Clusters and Hovis. Its production is largely unsustainable, and food companies in the EU are under no obligation to list it in their products

Image: CIFOR

Oil palm plantation in Indonesia Image: Ryan Woo

Palm oil is derived from palm fruit grown on oil palm trees, and is in over half of all supermarket products, especially in pre-packaged or baked goods like cookies, chocolates, air fresheners, and many Christmas puddings. In the western world the average person consumes over 10kg of palm oil a year. Its excessive usage is partly because of how cost efficient it is, as well as its long shelf life. There has been a recent rise in its demand as commercial industries use it to substitute for partially hydrogenated oils, as it reduces the amount of trans fat in their products. However, palm oil is a highly saturated vegetable fat— which comes with their own health risks.

Palm oil trees thrive in warm and humid environments, and plantations can be found particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Columbia. Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of palm oil, yielding $40bn of annual revenue between them. While their economies profit, irreparable damage to the environment is taking place. Farming contributes to and causes deforestation, habitat degradation, and animal cruelty.

Big companies like Tesco, Waitrose, and Divine Chocolate all boast of using palm oil, but creating a framework to ensure the sustainable production of palm oil is not easy. Thomas King is the creator and head of, which was set up in 2010. In 2011 and 2012 King travelled to Borneo and lived within indigenous communities to witness the impact of the industry firsthand. In an interview with Nouse King pointed out: “the execution of [sustainable palm oil] has … at least early on, been quite poorly done. And while the RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil] is constantly improving and has come a long way since it was initially founded, many RSPO members today are still not deforestation-free, which has lead to criticism of the organisation and its standards.

“Sustainable palm oil does exist, but only a small percentage of all palm oil produced annually (less than 10%) is actually sustainable. If the future of this region’s forests, endangered wildlife and indigenous cultures are to be safeguarded, this figure needs to rise dramatically in coming years, which will be the responsibility of the RSPO, manufacturers and consumers.”

Image: Wakx

Oil palm expansion partly on peat lands and partly on mineral soils, Miri Division, Borneo. Image: Wakx

In the last 20 years the chief palm oil farming islands, Borneo and Sumatra, have destroyed 90% of orangutan habitat. An estimated 1,000-5,000 orangutans are killed each year due as a result of the industry’s development. A century ago there were roughly over 230,000 orangutans. Now the Bornean orangutan is estimated to number only 41,000, and the Sumatran 7,500. At this rate of decline, some predict the species to go extinct in the wild within a matter of years.

To find an alternative is vital, King explains: “from a manufacturing perspective, there are currently no other viable alternatives to palm oil that can produce the same amount of oil per hectare that palm oil does. There are however potential alternatives on the horizon, with the use of microalgae to produce oils for biofuel and household products being highlighted as a potential solution in a recent SBS article, as well as research being done into straw-derived alternatives.”

As large areas of rainforest and land are cleared, the lives of the indigenous people and plantation workers suffer. They are pushed off their land, which they depended on, and their only option for money to seek employment on plantations. The working conditions they are then subjected to are harsh and degrading, with their earnings barely enough to support their families.

Migrant workers are also employed on the plantations. They are often denied healthcare and education services. Even after labouring for decades, they still do not have legal documents that grant them and their children basic rights.

Palm oil frutis get their colour from beta-carotene, the same chemical that gives carrots their orange colour Image: Moses Ceaser

The environmental and social costs of the business are extremely damaging and complex. Lowering our consumption of the oil can go some way to reducing the destruction. In the UK there are no laws that enforced the mandatory labelling of palm oil. The ingredient has been listed under at least 200 different names— ‘vegetable oil’ the most abundant. From 2015 though, the UK initiates new rules that require all vegetable oils to be labelled individually.

To know how to make a difference for this cause is not always clear. That is why King is currently working with a small team of professionals to create the ‘28 Day Palm Oil Challenge’. He says it is “a free, multimedia program designed to guide consumers through the process of removing palm oil from their lifestyles. The program, which will be released in early 2015, will be delivered through a series of videos, tutorials, photos, and recipes. It will both inform consumers about the issue as well as provide the names of sustainable companies and products that meet our criteria and ‘make it yourself’ options for those willing to go the extra mile.”

As with all causes, spreading awareness of it goes a long way to making a difference. As King and many others continue to fight to find solutions for the damage being done, we need to realise our own ability to achieve positive change. As by simply being more aware of the ingredients in our food, and buying more palm oil-free products, small steps can be taken towards big changes.