Palm oil is made from the fruits of the African oil palms. The trees originally came from west and south-west Africa, but they were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where they grow well with minimum care unlike other vegetable oils. Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. The trees may be produced on small-scale family farms called smallholders or large plantations. The oil from the palm nut is so versatile that it can be used in products ranging from baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics and cleaning agents to washing detergents and toothpaste. This is why nearly half the packaged products we buy at the supermarket contain palm oil. But many producers of palm oil produce it in an unsustainable way.
The palm oil industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. 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 having devastating effects on many species. Research shows that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years. At this moment, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered as a consequence of deforestation that is rapidly destroying their habitat. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. Government data in Indonesia has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades.
Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change. The removal of the native forests often involves the burning of invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere and making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
Not only is the environment suffering from palm oil production. The palm oil industry has been linked to human rights violations, including child labor in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Work for which more than often not, they receive little or no pay. While palm oil production provides employment to many people in Southeast Asia, the industry has also had devastating impacts on groups of people that depend on the rainforest land. They are left with no choice but to become plantation workers under poor working conditions. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous people are now reliant on the palm oil industry for their income and survival.
As a reaction to these problems, the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was formed in 2004. The RSPO is an NGO that aims to unite stakeholders form all sectors of the palm oil industry, including environmental and social NGOs. It is currently the largest sustainability-focused organization within the palm oil sector, but its standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations. One of the reasons why it is seen by environmentalists and organizations as nothing more than a greenwashing scheme.
So, what can you do to reduce your impact on these problems?
1. Choose deforestation-free brands and make more at home (whether that be food or personal care products). This list and this scorecard can help you on your way. Say no to palm oil also has a website with information to help you go deforestation-free.
The following brands are NOT deforestation-free, so try to avoid them: Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; Grupo Bimbo; Hillshire Brands Company; H.J. Heinz Company; Hormel Foods Corporation; Kellogg Company; Kraft Food Group, Inc.; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp.; Mars Inc.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Nestlé S.A.; Nissin Foods Holdings Co., Ltd.; PepsiCo, Inc.; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; Toyo Suisan Kaisha, Ltd.; and Unilever.
3. Support NGO´s working to end deforestation, help orang utans etc. A couple are: