One of the most ubiquitous materials in the World, palm oil is used in around half of all toiletries, cosmetics and food products. It has been implicated in habitat destruction, displacement of indigenous people and soil erosion. But is it really the villain it is made out to be?
In fact, the oil palm is a highly efficient crop that is significantly more productive than any of its alternatives. So in theory this means that cultivating an alternative crop could use more land and further exacerbate the environmental damage that’s caused currently. The crux of the problem is that industry’s insatiable appetite for palm oil means that land continues to be cleared for its production at an alarming rate, destroying irreplaceable tropical rain forest and peatlands that we rely on to store CO2 and produce oxygen as well as being home to humans, animals and plants. In addition, burning the forest and peatlands causes dangerous air pollution and there is evidence of significant human rights abuse to displaced people and workers. The lack of governance regarding land clearance for palm oil means that it’s too easy to clear more and more land for its production, rather than ensuring that the land employed for its production is used more efficiently.
We’re part of the problem too. Palm oil is used extensively in convenience foods, because it is odourless and colourless, stable at high temperatures and resistant to oxidation. One of the most effective ways to reduce demand for palm oil is to cook from scratch rather than buying pre-prepared foods – easy to say, but not everybody has the time or cash to do this. Avoiding food waste can help, too, and brings other environmental benefits as well as saving cash. As for toiletries and cosmetics, making our own isn’t an option for most people so curbing demand is primarily a question of avoiding waste.
So, should we boycott palm oil? That’s a matter of personal choice, of course, and some would argue that displacing palm oil in favour of oils from less productive sources is counter-productive and risks eroding the GDP of developing countries. It also assumes that we can recognise the 20 or more terms that can be used to describe it on labels – a time-consuming task for any busy consumer. If we do choose to buy products containing palm oil, it certainly helps to choose those containing sustainable palm oil. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is the most established certification programme and it strengthened its criteria in November 2018 making it more effective at avoiding human rights abuses and environmental degradation – look out for its “RSPO certified” and “Green Palm” labels.
As with so many environmental challenges, things are rarely black and white and there is always a risk that in solving one problem we will unwittingly create another. But arming ourselves with the facts means that at least we can choose to do the best thing based on the information we have. You can find more information on Palm Oil and the RSPO at WWF, Rainforest Rescue and RSPO.