A closer look into palm oil

Brushing your teeth, taking a shower, applying makeup, doing laundry, going out for ice cream or even having some popcorn at the movie theatre can all have one thing in common - palm oil.
More than half of all packaged products consumed in North America contain this particular vegetable oil. In addition to the foods we eat, it can also be found in everything from cosmetics, detergents and even biofuel.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African palm tree. The palm fruit can flourish wherever heat and rainforest are abundant. A very productive crop, it offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils. Today, it is grown throughout Africa, Asia, South America, with 85% globally exported from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Why is it bad?

Global production and demand for palm oil has been rapidly increasing. Since land and forests must be cleared for the development of palm oil plantations, the industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and the abuse of human rights in the countries where it is produced. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest, is cleared EACH HOUR to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction and having a large impact on our climate.

Large areas of tropical forests have been cleared to make room for palm oil plantations. This has destroyed habitats for many endangered species. In Indonesia alone, orangutans, rhinos and elephants are under the threat of becoming extinct as a result of the palm oil industry. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 year. An estimated 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year due to deforestation from palm oil production. The orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

Air Pollution
Burning is a common method for clearing vegetation in natural forests, as well as within palm plantations. The burning of forests releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Due to such a high deforestation rate, Indonesia is the third largest global emitter of greenhouse gases.

Water Pollution
A palm mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct releases of effluent can contribute greatly to freshwater pollution.

Forced and Child Labour
Palm oil plantations are often promoted as a way of bringing development to poor, rural regions in Indonesia. While palm oil production does provide employment, the industry has also had devastating impacts on groups of people in the region. All too often, the government’s main interest in the country’s economy allows corporations to take the land owned by indigenous peoples for their own financial benefit. The palm oil industry has been linked to major human rights violations, including child labour. Workers are faced with poor and degrading working conditions, earning barely enough income to survive and support their families. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous communities become reliant on the palm oil industry for their income and survival, leaving these villagers incredibly vulnerable to the world market price of palm oil which they have no control over.

The good news is that it does not have to be this way. With better management and sustainable practices, the palm oil industry could provide benefits without having such a negative impact.

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund have been working towards achieving this.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been established to define and promote better practices for sustainable palm oil production. They are also encouraging companies to use sustainable palm oil in the products they sell and eliminating incentives for palm oil production that leads to the destruction of forests.

What can we do?

  • We have become increasing dependent on palm oil due to the large amount of
            processed and packaged food we consume. By incorporating more whole
            foods into our diets we can greatly decrease our palm oil consumption.
  • Choose palm oil- free cosmetics. With a number of great alternative options
           available this is easy action to take. Palm oil is not always labelled properly in
           cosmetics. When reading labels keep in mind that it will normally take a
           derivative form such as glycerin, emulsifiers etc.
  • Encourage companies to remove palm oil or move towards sustainable palm oil
           practices. You can do this by joining a movement, sending an email or
           tweeting a company to make your voice heard. Here at Fjordlife, we strongly
           believe in the power of the consumer.

Visit the World Wildlife Fund website to learn more about the sourcing of palm oil and the palm oil industry.

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