You may have heard about the plight of the orangutan and have a vague idea of its link to palm oil, but how much do you really know about the connection and, importantly, how we form part of the story? How much do you know about the eco-footprint of palm oil?

Truth be told we knew very little about the issue and so began delving into its many facets. What we found was alarming, confusing and yes, disturbing, but there is light amongst the fog. Whilst the issues surrounding the palm oil industry – deforestation, wildlife loss, community violations – are frightening, consumers have the power to influence positive change. And we need to exercise that power now.

For the past 30 years, palm oil – an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of oil palm trees – has been making its way into a vast range of products. In fact, it’s now in over 50% of products on supermarket shelves, including chocolate, cereal, chips, ice-cream, baked goods, confectionary, sauces, soups, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, household cleaning products… the list goes on and on. Many products outside the supermarket are also offenders, such as paint.

In fact, over 50 million tonnes of palm oil are produced annually, 85% of it produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Alarming also is palm oil’s invisibility – it’s currently not mandatory to label palm oil in Australia. More on that later.

What’s the big deal? It’s a vegetable oil, pretty harmless yes? Actually, no…

• The industry fuels deforestation. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour and acknowledges that in Indonesia and Malaysia the main driver for this clearing is the development of oil palm plantations. Palm oil is also a major driver of mangrove destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Between them, 25 major palm oil producers are known to have destroyed more than 130,000 ha of forest and wetland since 2015, an area almost twice the size of Singapore.

Since mangroves and wetlands absorb twice the amount of carbon than all the world’s forests combined, this poses a significant issue for the planet’s capacity to cope with climate change.

• Deforestation releases huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2010 in Indonesia alone, over 140 million metric tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to the amount released by 28 million vehicles – was released during deforestation operations to make way for oil palm plantations.

• Deforestation is threatening endangered species. Orangutans have diminished by 50% in just 10 years as oil palm plantations have encroached on their habitat. And it’s not just the orangutan in trouble – the Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant are also in extreme danger of extinction.

• We know palm oil is high in saturated fats… The National Heart Foundation of Australia advises against the regular consumption of palm oil because it’s made up of over 50% saturated fats and is low in polyunsaturated fats, a well-known formula for promoting high LDL cholesterol (that’s the bad one) and heart disease. In a media release in February 2007, Christopher Pyne, Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing said;

“While looking at the trans fats issue, we have no wish to undo much of this good work (by manufacturers reducing trans fats content), for example, by manufacturers and retailers returning to use saturated fats such as palm oil…”

What about RSPO Sustainable Palm Oil? Is that okay?

Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is palm oil that has been grown on a plantation that has been managed and certified in accordance with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) principles and criteria.

Unfortunately there are serious pitfalls with the supply chain and the RSPO CSPO scheme, effectively meaning that not all companies that claim to support sustainable palm oil actually use 100% CSPO. In fact, Greenpeace has released a damning report revealing systematic failure of the RSPO scheme to effectively monitor and enforce companies’ sustainability policies along the supply chain. Testament to this, a recent study carried out by the University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions revealed that RSPO-certified plantations perform no better than non-RSPO plantations.

 

Labelling is a real issue

In Australia, companies are not required to stipulate that their product contains ‘palm oil’. Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon introduced labelling legislation in 2009 but while it passed the Senate it failed to get a vote in the lower house. As such there are a host of alternative names for palm oil and its derivatives that are often used, such as ‘palmitate’ and ‘elaeis guineensis’, sometimes even just ‘vegetable oil’. Of course, this makes it tricky for consumers to know whether a product contains palm oil, let alone sustainable palm oil. Thankfully there are lists available to help consumers identify palm oil and its derivatives in products – see here.

You, Me, We can make a difference

Whilst the palm oil issue can appear too behemoth to conquer, we as consumers can do something about it. The palm oil industry is driven by demand for the end-products: our soap, our shampoo, our food. It’s therefore within our power to influence the industry by carefully choosing the products we buy – ensuring they are palm oil free.

Since palm oil is so deeply engrained in the local economy of Indonesia and Malaysia, it’s not as simple as manufacturers taking a blanket ‘no palm oil’ approach. What is clear though is that it’s use and consumption needs to dramatically reduce in order to ensure that demand doesn’t continue to escalate and further deforestation is avoided.

Here’s four things we can all do starting now:

1. The numero uno thing to do is to consume mostly wholefoods such as vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and organic meat and dairy and avoid processed/refined/packaged foods where possible. These don’t contain additives such as palm oil and are also better for your health.

“The most important thing to remember about food labels is that you should avoid foods that have labels.”
Dr Joel Fuhrman

2. When you do purchase packaged products, check to see if palm oil or its derivatives are listed in the ingredients. Here’s our handy ‘cut & keep’ guide with alternative names for palm oil and its derivatives commonly used on labels.

3. CHOOSE a palm oil free alternative (here’s a handy shopping guide) and let the manufacturer and the retailer of the palm oil product know why you’ve chosen not to buy it. There are also 3 palm oil free certification logos to look out for, as well as this list of certified and approved brands.

 

4. Take action.
Like the Palm Oil Investigations Facebook page and engage in their important advocacy work. Don’t be afraid to utilise social media to request answers from brands you love.

Be warned that sometimes their answers can be a little… well… greenwashy, so visit Palm Oil Investigations to learn about the questions to ask and the corporate statements to be wary of.

Melbourne Zoo’s Zoopermarket provides online letter templates for easy send-off to various brands.
Keep your eye on our blog over the coming weeks for more insight into the palm oil industry.

Download our helpful resource guide on Palm Oil

References
The following sources were used when collating the facts used in this blog post:
Nature Climate Change: Carbon emissions from forest conversion by Kalimantan oil palm plantations. 7 October 2012. Retrieved 22 October 2013 from nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n3/full/nclimate1702.html
Image of orangutan copyright of orangutans.com.au.