Palm Oil: Ruining our Rainforest?


Sophie Crump addresses the role of palm oil in the food industry and its damaging environmental effects

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By Sophie Crump

Image: CIFOR
Image: CIFOR
You may have recently heard a number of people talking about the use of palm oil in the food industry. It features surprisingly frequently on the ingredients list in products you wouldn't even imagine to have it, with around half of all supermarket goods containing the oil. Cereal, biscuits and even ice cream and household cleaning products are all liable to have palm oil added to them. So what exactly is it? Palm oil is a vegetable oil which comes from a specific oil palm tree, native to West and South West Africa. Fruit is harvested from the trees and the oil is then extracted from the kernel in the fruit. Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest producers of palm oil, producing around fifty million tonnes per year. Generally used in food as an emulsifier in order to blend different ingredients, its appeal is largely that it is the cheapest vegetable oil out there. In an increasingly competitive food market, it's no wonder companies are capitalising on the tree, with Indonesia set to double its production by 2020. However this trade is causing serious environmental problems. With demand on the rise, the palm oil industry is ripping through the rainforest, increasing greenhouse gas emission and endangering species such as orangutans.
It is estimated that around 80 per cent of orangutans' original habitats have now been destroyed.
The Asian elephant, tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros are also threatened - with the Sumatran rhinoceros and Orangutan already in a critically endangered status. It's also very tricky to identify which foods contain palm oil given the array of names it is disguised under on products, including simply vegetable oil, stearic acid or Alkylpolyglycoside (try saying that one!) and many more. So what can we do? Many companies are now committing themselves to avoid the use of palm oil and advertising as such on their packaging, or using sustainable palm oil instead. Pressure from environmentalists as well as an increasingly savvy public are causing brands such as Starbucks and Marks & Spencer to save their reputations and utilise sustainable oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are the leading organisation in charge of organising and commanding the debate around it. Supporting the use of sustainable palm oil, the RSPO represents a number of big brands in encouraging chains to switch to sustainable products. Working with governments in Indonesia as well as major brands such as Pepsi has seen some progress in terms of pledges to reduce its usage, but there is still much that needs to be done.
Image: Eric Kilby
Image: Eric Kilby
Sustainable palm oil is supported by many as better than any other oil, given the high yield the tree brings per acre compared to any other vegetable oil source. However a number of products simply don't need to include it, with many brands favouring ingredients which are pure and natural, catering to the more health conscious market. The brand Meridian are one such company with their range of nut butters and cereal bars which specifically market themselves on being palm oil free. Dedicated to abstaining from using palm oil, Meridian owners are supporters of The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, and pride themselves on their range of nut butters which contain only pure nuts, without any added sugar, salt or oil. While some products, such as Meridian peanut butter, may be that little bit more expensive compared to your run of the mill supermarket own brand, for the survival of these gentle and endangered animals and a clearer conscience, it certainly seems an extra pound is worth the spend. Some companies to watch out for in terms of using palm oil include Warbutons, Mr. Kipling and Cadbury's. Hopefully more and more companies in the near future will begin avoiding the use of palm oil in their products and, with greater public awareness, consumers can simultaneously apply pressure to realise a better means of sustainable food production.