What is Palm Oil? And Why Should We Say NO?

Before we answer the question “Why we should say no to palm oil?”, it is necessary to talk about the oil palm tree and its fruit – and the industry behind it.

I know it is a fitness and healthy lifestyle website, but after a lot of reading and research, I decided to write a complex article about the whole palm oil industry and the actual product. Their impact on people, the environment and on your health. As I found out: there is a lot to read and know about it!

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The oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) is native to West Africa, where it was traditionally cultivated as a subsistence crop for food, fibre and medicine. However, this tree can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant.

Originally trees were inter-planted in traditional, small-scale agricultural production systems, along with other annual and perennial crops. These trees produce high-quality vegetable oil, which comes from the fruit of the tree, and there is an increasing demand worldwide, because it is a multipurpose oil.

Today refined palm oil can be found in many products – in most of the products around the house. Let’s have a quick look at the list below.

used as cooking oil

– used in confectionary, ice cream, ready-to-eat meals

– used as an industrial lubricant

– used as a bio-fuel

– the base for most liquid detergents, soaps and shampoos

– the base for lipstick, waxes and polishes

– the main ingredient for most margarine

Nowadays, approximately 85% of all palm oil globally is produced and exported from Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately, most of the time this isn’t using sustainable measures and that is the point when we rightfully say “NO” to palm oil.

Why?

1) Impact on the Environment

The oil palm tree loves heat and rain (water) and if we have a quick look at our Earth’s climate, or simply remember our studies at the primary or the secondary school, these areas can be found where rainforests are, e.g Malaysia, Indonesia, Central and South-America, West Africa.

The countries at this sub-tropical and tropical climate have the advantage of cultivating the plant, but these areas of the world are usually third-world or developing countries and they do not seem to care about their environment, when riches and wealth can be found by selling lands and forests.

In these countries, where production is not sustainable, we can see a massive level of deforestation and its consequences (think animal cruelty and extinction). Deforestation for palm oil production also contributes significantly to climate change.

The removal of the native forests involves the burning of invaluable timber and forest undergrowth, emitting immense quantities of smoke into the atmosphere – for example, Indonesia is now the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. This behaviour is leading to climate change.

Trees and plants are very important because they filter gas and release oxygen (photosynthesis). The removal of the forests themselves is a key factor to the increase in atmospheric pollution, as less carbon dioxide is being removed from the air due to diminishing forests and the Earth is turning into an even bigger “greenhouse”.

Conventional palm oil development causes severe damage to the landscape and has been linked to land erosion and the pollution of rivers.

What about animals? Well, the answer is simple. They are killed during the deforestation by ‘accident’, or they are tortured and killed with the baby animals sold on the black market.

This is terrible for the ecosystem, a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. These biotic and abiotic components are regarded as linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows.

Let’s emphasize the word “linked”. It’s like the chain of a bike: if you cut one piece, you are not going anywhere unless you push it. But you cannot push an ecosystem. This behaviour leads to the extinction of species in a few decades, or even tomorrow.

“Wildlife such as orangutans have been found buried alive, killed from machete attacks, guns and other weaponry. Government data has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died, as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. This either occurs during the deforestation process, or after the animal enters a village or existing palm oil plantation in search of food.

Mother orangutans are also often killed by poachers and have their babies taken to be sold or kept as pets, or used for entertainment in wildlife tourism parks in countries such as Thailand and Bali.

Other megafauna that suffer as a result of this development include species like the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey.

Road networks that are constructed to allow palm oil plantation workers and equipment access to the forest also increase accessibility of these areas to poachers that are looking for these kinds of valuable animals.

This allows poachers to comfortably drive to an area to sit and wait for their target, where previously they may have had to trek through inaccessible areas of forest”. [See reference below].

palm oil_2

2) Impact on People

The palm oil industry has had positive and negative impacts on the indigenous people who work on the plantations.

Positive effects:

– provide employment opportunities

– improve infrastructure and social services

– reduce poverty

Negative effects:

– social conflicts caused by developing lands, without consultation or compensation of the indigenous people who own or occupying the land

– illegal immigrants

– awful working conditions

– devastating impacts on the people in the area

– major human rights’ violations, including child labour 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.

Heat exhaustion, cuts and bruises from climbing thorny oil palms are commonplace in this damaging work space. Children receive little or no pay for their efforts.

– local people depend on the land, but the plantations are systematically destroying it.

“These communities are finding themselves with no choice but to accept the plantations, faced with barely enough income to survive and support their families. 

Din Perulak, the Chief of Sumatran tribe “Orang Rimba Sumatra” said in an interview: “I am so unhappy about these gigantic new oil palm plantations. Our forest which we, Orang Rimba, have gathered fruit, which has sustained us, has completely disappeared. There are plantations everywhere. I ask you, how are we supposed to survive, when there is no forest anymore?” [See reference below].

3) Sustainability

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004, which is a very good next step towards minimizing the impacts of the industry.

The RSPO has the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm tree products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. The organization has more than 2000 members from over 75 countries (2015).

The RSPO was established under Swiss Law, composed for the purpose of developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil. It holds an annual meeting to negotiate and discuss various issues affecting the industry.

Now we understand the global and environmental impact of the Palm Oil industry. Carry on to Part 2 – the nutritional affects and information, in this great piece.

To read more from Richard Csosza, visit his Expert Profile.

References:

Say No to Palm Oil

WWF (World Wildlife Fund)

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