Palm oil is encroaching on some of the worlds most biodiverse tropical forests in the world. It has become such a popular ingredient in products that football fields of natural forest are being destroyed. One of the main reasons for this growing demand is due to the increasing human population growth over the last couple of decades.
What is Palm Oil?
African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a tropical crop grown predominantly for the production of palm oil. It is the world’s highest yielding and least expensive vegetable oil, making it the preferred cooking oil for millions of people worldwide and a source of biodiesel. Palm oil and its by-products are also common ingredients in many packaged and fast foods, personal care and cosmetic products, and household cleaners. Driven by demand for these products, palm oil production nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013. Palm oil is the most important tropical vegetable oil internationally when measured in terms of both production and its importance to trade, accounting for one-third of vegetable oil production in 2009.
The dominance of palm oil may be explained by the yield of the oil palm crop, over four times that of other oil crops as well as its low price and flexibility as an ingredient in many processed goods. Palm oil goes by a assortment of names on product labels – such as glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, sodium Laureth sulfate, vegetable oil, Stearate, Vegetable fat, Stearic Acid, Palm Kernel, Octyl Palmitate, Sodium Kernelate, Palm Kernel Oil Palmityl Alcohol, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmitic Acid, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate, Palmate, Palm Stearine, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Palmitate, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide Etyl Palmitate, Palmloein, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Cetearyl isononanoate, Glyceryl, Elaeis Guineensis, calcium Stearoyl Lactylate Steareth-2, Hexadecanoic, CetylPalmitate, and emulsifier 422, 430- 436, 465-467, 470- 478,481- 483.
In chocolate and lipstick, palm oil prevents melting; in shampoo and soap, it keeps our hair and skin from drying out. I went to the supermarket the other day to do some first-hand research on this, and it is true. The dominance of palm oil is everywhere. In muesli, bread, chocolate, peanut butter, Nutella, pet food yoghurt, different types of cereal, Crips/chips, toothpaste. Oh, my goodness. Roughly 185 million tons of palm oil worth $190 billion are produced in the tropics and then traded worldwide, going primarily to the US and Europe. Regrettably, the highest concentrations of plant and animal species (or highest biodiversity) are also in the tropics, and so the doubling in palm oil production raises concerns about possible wildlife extinctions.
Threats of Palm oil and loss of biodiversity
On a global scale, 27 million hectares have been planted, the majority of that land had previously been a forest. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia produce the most palm oil. In these countries, palm plantations threaten iconic and endangered wildlife. What’s more, tropical deforestation also releases the carbon stored in the tree tissues and the soil, contributing to an estimated 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions that contributes to climate change. Within forests vulnerable to oil palm development, there is relatively low protection by IUCN category I and II protected areas (4.4% in Southeast Asia to 11.5% in Mesoamerica). https://conservationcaptured.com/2018/06/29/endangered-forests-are-we-too-late/
Here’s a more comprehensive breakdown
- Deforestation clears space for crops; areas the size of 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared every hour for palm oil manufacture.
- The deforestation destroys natural habitat for an estimated 300,000 species of animals. 1/3 of mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be Critically Endangered Roads built through rainforests make it easier for poachers to reach animals, instead of having to trek through the jungle. They are pushing orangutans to the edge of extinction. The Orangutan has potential towards becoming extinct in the wild in 5 -10 years. It is a keystone species which contributes to the well being of the entire ecosystem; 90% of orangutan habitats have been destroyed in the past 20 years; 50,000 orangutans killed in the previous twenty years; furthermore, another 1000 – 5000 orangutans are killed every year due to the dominance of palm oil. One thousand five hundred orangutans were clubbed to death by plantation workers; Baby orangutans are often taken by poachers and villagers to become entertainment attractions. Other animals endangered are the Sumatran Tiger wild extinction in 3 years, Sumatran rhinoceros Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard, and Proboscis Monkey.
- Deforestation produces a large amount of CO2 emission. Burning trees to clear land releases a large amount of smoke. Rainforest deforestation is answerable to 18% of the world’s carbon emissions per annum. Most of the cleared rain forests sit on peat bogs, which are carbon sinks. Indonesia has become the third-largest producer of CO2 emissions
Most of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are in tropical regions in these regions; an agricultural expansion may accelerate deforestation and threaten associated ecosystem services. The replacement of natural forests with monoculture palm plantations reduces overall plant diversity and eliminates the many animal species that depend on natural forests. The dominance of palm oil manufacture has doubled in the recent past with demand likely to drive further expansions if oil palm expands into all biophysically suitable areas, it may affect more than half of all threatened birds and mammals worldwide.
Sustainable Palm oil
In reaction to concerns over the industry’s sustainability standards, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 by a collective of business representatives and civil society groups. As a market-based mechanism, RSPO broadly intends to motivate companies and producers to improve their practices and ‘promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders’. Since initial establishment RSPO has grown to represent over 2000 members, certifying 2.65 million hectares of palm oil plantations and 11.65 million tonnes of palm oil equating to about 20% of global trade.
A central pillar of the RSPO is to manage palm oil plantations in a way that ‘maintains and/or enhances’ high conservation value (HCV) species (or fully protected species). As one example of an HCV and fully protected species, Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are to be monitored and protected by palm oil growers. Bornean Orangutans have become a global icon for biodiversity conservation efforts in the face of the rapid and continued growth of industrial oil palm plantations.
Unfortunately, I read that there was no proof to support the sustainability of certified plantations concerning orangutans. Orangutan populations declined in both certified and non-certified concessions between 2009–2014. Despite the initial hopes for the certification scheme, The significant challenge currently faced by RSPO is the differing interpretation of its primary objective, to ‘promote sustainable palm oil’.
Conservation and the future of Palm oil
High rates of forest loss for the dominance of palm oil production across a range of countries and continents, raise concerns about future expansions of oil palm plantations. This legacy of forest loss points to the need for increased monitoring and interventions with a particular emphasis in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea in Southeast Asia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil in South America, and Cameroon in Africa.
We also find that conservation priorities depend on taxa and selection criteria. By one approach or another, almost all of the forests vulnerable to oil palm development have high biodiversity. Expansion of oil palm at the expense of natural forest is a conservation concern in all regions. Protected areas are a primary strategy for species conservation, but there remain questions about which places to protect.
One approach is the protection of high biodiversity areas, specifically focusing on the spots with the highest concentration of species with the greatest vulnerability to extinction: those with small ranges or deemed threatened by the IUCN.
So why don’t we boycott palm oil and then manufacturers will have to use a more sustainable, environmentally friendly oil right? It’s not that simple, unfortunately. Palm oil is the most productive type of all edible oil plants. Oil palms make around ten times more oil per acre than other crops like soy or canola. Palm oil only requires a small portion of land compared to other oil plant crops.
Along with this, Indonesia and Malaysia are countries where poverty is rife, and palm oil contributes a massive chunk to their economy, employing millions of people. There will always be a demand for edible oil, and this demand is increasing due to human population growth. If we boycott palm oil, another crop will take its place. The dominance of palm oil isn’t going anywhere.
What you can do
If you avoid buying products containing palm oil, you could be helping protect wildlife! However, purchasing palm-oil-free groceries is almost as difficult as avoiding the plastic packaging these products come in! SAYING THIS, it is possible; you need to dig deep, do your product research and don’t give up.http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil
I’ve found several apps that tell you if palm oil is present in the product and if it comes from a sustainable source, so go ahead a try that out.
Sustainable Palm oil Shopping
Palm oil Scanner
MPOB Palm Apps
Mafrica Oil Palm Plantation
Palm oil VR
MB Lion Oleochemicals
Speak out. If your favourite food product contains palm oil, and you’re not comfortable with that, send an email to the manufacturer and complain. Make them aware and ask if the palm oil they use is sustainable.
We can make a difference from the dominance of palm oil by raising awareness about the environmental impact of palm oil production. Awareness is a crucial factor in influencing an individual’s behaviour. It is needed because before someone can care about an issue, they have to know the problem exists. Caring is a precursor to behavioural change. If enough people take notice and call for change, we can influence companies and governments to protect forests from further deforestation.
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