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?

This substance belongs to the groups:

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*. Which is a good thing for consumers wanting toxic- and cruelty-free products.

Deforestation and its widespread negative effects

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 palm oil plantations 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.

Climate change, animal welfare and threats to human health

Moreover, the tropical forests that are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations are also 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 and worsening the effects of global warming, but the burning of landscapes are also creating a dangerous haze in the air. The haze 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 primary forest to a plantation.

Some of the worlds most exotic animals, including rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and tigers are some of the worst affected by the plantations.

However, it does exist criteria for sustainable farming of palm oil, so-called Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

These 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 and polluting pesticide paraquat is still allowed to be used. To emphasize the criticism, paraquat is prohibited for use in the EU as it is declared toxic to humans, animals, and the environment.

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 origin of the ingredients.

“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 that contains palm oil while it hides behind substance names as “sodium laureth sulfate” or simply listed as “vegetable oil” in the content list of products.

As of today, 2019, there is still no certification on products, such as the “cruelty-free” or “fair trade” stamp, that consumers can look for in their search for sustainable palm oil.

What we can do is to put pressure on brands by asking about their ingredients and how they source them.

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 palm oil used?

Nowadays, 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 can find it in:

  • cookies
  • ice cream
  • bio-fuel
  • ready-to-eat meals
  • margarine
  • cooking oil
  • candy
  • children’s food
  • peanut butter
  • candles
  • detergents
  • all kinds of cosmetic products*.

It is estimated that palm oil and its derivatives are used in about 70 % of all cosmetics worldwide. Some example include lipsticks, skin creams and shampoos.

The reason why palm oil is so popular is largely due to its low price, composition (lasts long), and the large 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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