Palm oil is a big industry. Earning up to 40 billion dollars per year by tearing down rainforests. Displacing indigenous people. Emitting great amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And driving many species, such as the orangutan, into extinction. But banning palm oil from your life as a customer is virtually impossible. It can be found in over 50% of the products made these days, such as ice cream, toothpaste, lipstick…
But what if I tell you that you should not avoid palm oil, because it is not as bad as it presented?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is obtained from the fruits and seeds of the oil palm tree. This tree is originally from West Africa but has been planted all over the tropics. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two main exporters of palm oil, responsible for about 85% of the world’s supplies. Today palm oil is the most important vegetable oil in terms of production and trade.
There is much debate about palm oil, with both opponents and proponents. On one side, palm oil places a great role in the deforestation of the tropics. Causing a loss of biodiversity, climate change and social conflicts. But on the other hand, palm oil is a highly sustainable industry as it is a highly sufficient crop. Meaning that per hectare of palm oil, there is more production reached than of any other vegetable oil. Besides that, it also needs significantly fewer pesticides and fertilizer compared to the other crops.
For instance, while soy and rapeseed crops typically need about 315kg and 99kg of fertilizer to produce one tonne of oil. Palm oil needs about 49kg. And while 1 hectare of palm oil crop produces 3,62 tonnes of palm oil. The same area only produces only 0,3 and 0,79 tonnes of soybean and rapeseed oil, respectively.
As mentioned before, palm oil is a major driver of deforestation. Most of the land where palm oil is being produced used to be rainforest that is burned down to make place for the plantation. This deforestation has significant environmental impacts, including the loss of biodiversity, changes in climate and hydrological changes.
Due to the loss of forests, there is less habitat available for wildlife. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the orangutan is the most famous example of an animal that is impacted greatly by the loss of habitat. The climate is affected not only on a local scale but also much broader. Caused by the huge influx of carbon dioxide that gets released when the forest is burned.
The disappearance of the rainforest also affects the hydrological patterns of the area can also be affected. Due to an alteration in precipitation retention and rates. Besides the environmental problems, there are also problems on a social level. Where local people are being exploited on the plantations.
How to improve the palm oil industry
I am very happy to see that there are many projects in place to make the palm oil industry sustainable. Both for the environment and the local people.
A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2003. To get those in the palm oil industry to work together to do this. Members of the group are given strict guidelines about how they produce their palm oil. By establishing harsh production standards for all stages of manufacturing. This certification allows companies to demonstrate that oil palm plantations don’t need to grow at the expense of rainforests or human rights.
Another important point in producing palm oil is the location of the plantations. Instead of the continuation burning down rainforests to establish new plantations. These new plantations can be established on already degraded land. These areas already contain little biodiversity due to their state. This means that the transformation into palm oil plantations will have much fewer negative effects than when healthy rainforest is replaced.
Your favourite brand
Do you want to know if your favourite brand or company is actively working on making palm oil more sustainable? Check this link and find out!
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