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  • Carol Jin

The Problem On Our Hands: How Palm Oil Harms The Environment


Credit: James Morgan


Introduction

Palm oil, extracted from oil palm tree fruits, may sound like an exotic or tropical ointment to most people, but in reality we encounter it in our everyday lives: palm oil is found in many soaps, cosmetics, inks, and processed foods. In fact, palm oil is the “most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet” [2], found in about 50% of supermarket products! Unfortunately, conventional methods of extracting this popular oil are unsustainable and yield environmentally-destructive consequences. This week’s article will discuss the main environmental hazards that palm oil extraction typically causes, as well as some potential solutions/alternatives to this dilemma.


The Problem With Most Palm Oils

There’s a reason why palm oil is so widely used in the first place: its high efficiency. Crops of palm trees produce the most oil per land area compared to alternative oil crops such as soybeans or coconuts. Palm oil makes up 35% of all the vegetable oil we consume but only takes up 10% of the global land used for vegetable oil harvesting [2]. This begs the question, “If it’s so efficient, what’s the problem?” Well…

  • Deforestation: About 85% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, but 40% of Indonesian forests (about 7.2 million acres of forestland) have been cleared and replaced with palm plantations, like the one pictured below [4]. Trees are significant carbon sinks (places where carbon can be stored), so deforestation allows carbon-containing greenhouse gases to persist in our atmosphere and thus contributes to global climate change.


Palm Plantation (Credit: Alain Rival)


  • Endangered Species’ Habitat Destruction: This point is related to the previous one, but focuses more on the diversity of natural rainforests. Mowing down biodiversity hotspots like Indonesian rainforests can push already-endangered species (orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, etc.) past the brink of extinction due to habitat loss [5].


Pygmy Elephant (Borneo Post online, Alan Rogers)


  • Soil Erosion: Planting oil palms artificially, especially on steep slopes, can loosen surrounding soil and increase the chances of this soil getting carried away by nearby flowing water [3]. This erosion increases flooding because naturally, depositing soil into bodies of water such as streams or rivers can clog up their flows over time.


In conclusion: Despite palm oil being the most efficient vegetable oil crop to grow in terms of land use, the huge scale of its demand makes its production environmentally unsustainable anyway.


Potential Solutions

Palm oil has become a necessary evil, given how prevalent it is in our modern society, but we can still achieve greater eco-friendliness in the following ways:

  • Get RSPO-Certified Palm Oil: Typical palm oil harvesters are not concerned with the environmental impacts of their actions, but the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) recognizes sustainable palm oil producers who actively conserve natural resources and biodiversity [1]! Palm oil that is RSPO-certified will likely be labeled with the following logo:

  • Buy Products That Don’t Contain Palm Oil: This one, admittedly, is difficult because palm oil hides behind various code names when listed on food ingredient labels (it can be called hydrogenated palm glycerides, natural flavor, palm fruit oil, and a whole bunch of other sneaky alternative names!).

  • If you’d still like to pitch in as best as you can, there are plenty of online resources that give you very detailed, specific information about what products don’t use palm oil. For example, this is a list of ice cream brands that refrain from using palm oil in their products (phew, I was so relieved to see some of my favorite brands up on that list!).


Thank you for reading! With our help, the world can make a U-Turn for the better.

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.



References

[1] What is palm oil used for? https://greenpalm.org/about-palm-oil/what-is-palm-oil/what-is- palm-oil-used-for.

[2] World Wildlife Fund. Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil? WWF. https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil.

[3] World Wildlife Fund. Palm Oil. WWF. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil.

[4] Baron, V. (2017, June 8). No, palm oil is not responsible for 40% of global deforestation. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2017-06-palm-oil-responsible-global-deforestation.html.

[5] 8 things to know about palm oil. WWF. (2020, January 17). https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/ 8-things-know-about-palm-oil.


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