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What is it?

“Palm oil (also known as dendê oil, from Portuguese is an edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis..” Wikipedia

What are the effects?

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The main concern regarding palm oils is the negative effects it has on the environment. The palm oil is in itself not of concern. Palm oil has in fact many health benefits and has replaced many petroleum based ingredients and animal fats in foods and cosmetics*.

But the high demand for this vegetable oil has resulted in vast deforestation; where mainly tropical rainforests have been chopped down to make way for large monoculture oil palm plantations. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) writes that these plantations do not only have dramatic negative consequences on ecosystems, biodiversity, and for many endangered species, it is also causing eviction of local communities living in the areas. There have also been reports of forced labor at some plantations.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) also reports that the huge plantations of oil palms are causing rain forest devastation, loss of irreplaceable nature, and crimes against humanity. The countries most severely affected by the large-scale palm oil productions are Malaysia and Indonesia. The biggest producer, Indonesia, has an estimated 13.5 million hectares of oil plantations, an area that is planned to double by 2020.

The tropical forests that are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations are some of the most carbon rich, explains the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). When these carbon rich forests and peatlands are drained, burned and cleared, they release both carbon and methane into the atmosphere which drives global warming. This is not only contributing to global warming, the burning of landscapes are creating a dangerous haze in the air that is causing thousands of human deaths in South East Asia each year, according to the UCS.

The USC also reports that only about 15 % of native animal species survive the move from a primary forest to a plantation. Rhinos, elephants, orangutangs and tigers are some of the animals worst affected by the plantations.

There are criteria for palm oil, so called Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), that are set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). But the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), among others, is critical to the RSPO, saying that the criteria are not sustainable enough.

The main criticism is that the criteria are too weak on deforestation, and that the dangerous pesticide paraquat is still allowed to be used, which according to many causes pollution. Paraquat is prohibited for use in the EU as it is declared toxic to humans, animals and the environment.

However, Not all palm oil is bad. Palm oil = Good Deforestation = Bad.

To find products that are using palm oil in a responsible way, without negative impact on the environment, wildlife and people, you have to read the fine prints or ask questions about the ingredients origin.

“Green” and ethical palm oil is generally defined as organic, deforestation-free and peat-free. But it may be difficult to find, as the SSNC in 2016 reported – the organic palm oil only accounts for 0,2 percent of the total production. And what could make it even more difficult – there are many ingredients containing palm oil while they hide behind substance names as “sodium laureth sulfate” or simply listed as “vegetable oil” in the content list of products.

To conclude, The Palm Oil Investigation gives this advice.

“Consumers need to understand that not all palm oil is bad.  Not all palm oil is wiping out habitat and killing endangered species. Palm oil can be farmed and produced in a responsible and ethical manner and consumers can help by pressuring brands to only source ethically produced palm oil.  Support the brands that are sourcing responsibly and avoid brands that are not.”

How is it used?

There is palm oil in almost all kinds of consumer goods and most people encounter it on a regular basis. The WWF writes that at least half of all packaged products contain palm oil. You’ll find it in cookies, ice cream, bio-fuel, ready-to-eat meals, margarine, cooking oil, candy, children’s food, peanut butter, candles, detergents – and in all kinds of cosmetic products*. It is estimated that palm oil and its derivatives is used in about 70 % of all cosmetics worldwide, for example in lipsticks, skin creams and shampoos. The reason why palm oil is so popular is largely du to its low price, composition (lasts long), and the big available supply.

Food products in the EU containing palm oil must have it written in the list of ingredients since 2014. Previously, as it still is in many countries, it was enough to label it as “vegetable oil”. But as mentioned above, in cosmetics it is still common that ingredients described as “vegetable oil”, is indeed derived from palm oil.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

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