The issue and use of Palm Oil comes up regularly in conversations on many Environmental and Vegan groups- A lot of people are unsure as to why palm oil is an issue, others do not know what or where palm oil comes from and the rest simply do not wish to be involved in the controversy. I decided to create a post on the issue at hand discussing what Palm oil is, the history of it and the production which impacts on the environment and animals.
What is palm oil
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are in abundance.
Palm oil has historically been recognized as being one of the world’s “major commodities”. It was brought over from Africa to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. The initial demand for palm oil was for use in candles and as lubricant for machinery. The invention of the hydrogenation process in Europe pushed the demand even further, and after WWII the oil became easier to transport and to use in numerous Western food products. At the time, 250,000 tonnes of palm oil were being exported annually from South-East Asia.
Indonesia; the world’s largest archipelago with around 17,000 islands, used to be completely covered in tropical rainforests until the largest of these islands (Borneo & Sumatra) were taken over by palm oil corporations with the Indonesian Government’s permission. The initial start of the productions started when the Indonesian President Suharto made it his priority in 1968 to render Indonesia as a politically stable and sustained economic nation with the investment of the palm oil sector. Rapid expansion occurred throughout the 1980s, brought on by the increased global demands for the oil which Suharto believed would greatly benefit Indonesia if the production and expansion were increasingly invested in. Why? Because while Malaysia was leading the way in the oil sector, Indonesia’s greater land area and low labour costs would make the country the leader in the production of the palm oil.
The Indonesian Government soon converted a few million hectares of the country’s rainforest into palm oil plantations to become the biggest global producer of this in demand oil, Indonesia soon passed Malaysia in the production and export of palm oil in 2007 and the industry now takes up 8 million hectares of land which is expected to expand to 13 million by the year 2020.
Palm oil is used in everyday household items-You probably consume it every single day without realising. Products such as many types of chocolates, chewing gum, lipstick, washing powder, doughnuts, soap, and biodiesel and used by companies such Unilever, Kellogg’s and Nestle to name but a few. It is widely used in Asia as a cooking medium and for noodles which has created a $44 billion industry. According to trade reports one third of palm oil production in the world is exported to China and India.
Demand for this vegetable oil is higher than ever before and it is growing at a fast pace. Millions of tons of palm oil is produced annually, accounting for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production and over 60,000,000 tonnes of palm oil is produced today. Increasing the need for more land therefore plantations have been developed throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, but still today 85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported is from Indonesia and Malaysia; most of the time it is produced not using any sustainable measures at all! Which is causing an abundance of problems for the Environment and animal species.
Above is an insight into the damaging causes of palm oil has on the rainforests. A large proportion of palm oil expansion occurs at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems in the countries it is produced. Currently, 1/3 of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered as a consequence of this unsustainable development that is rapidly encroaching on their habitat;.
One animal of particular importance according to conservationists is the orangutan, which has become a charismatic icon for deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra. Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years, and as such, is considered “a conservation emergency” by the UN. IT has been estimated around 5000 orangutans are killed each year for the development in the industry. The orangutan is a keystone species and plays a vital role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.
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. Trees and other plants filter gases through the process of photosynthesis- removing Carbon Dioxide and adding Oxygen into the atmosphere. The removal of the forests themselves in these regions is therefore a key factor in contributing to the ever increasing atmospheric pollution and climate change.
There are over 300,000 different animals found throughout the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, many of which are injured, killed and displaced during deforestation. In addition, palm oil development increases accessibility of animals to poachers and wildlife smugglers who capture and sell wildlife as pets, use them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts. The destruction of rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra is therefore not only a conservation emergency, but a major animal welfare crisis as well.
Orangutans are killed during deforestation, when trees are felled or as a result of being crushed by logging machinery. Individuals have also been found burnt, buried alive and dismembered, often because fully-grown orangutans pose a substantial threat to loggers’ safety. Orangutans that wander into existing palm oil plantations in search of food are considered to be agricultural pest, as they have the ability to damage oil palm crops. To address this issue, owners of the plantations often place a bounty on the head of the orangutan – rewarding anyone who successfully disposes of the animal.
Sustainable palm oil?
Industry efforts to bring this deforestation under control have come through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It was set up in 2001 to establish clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil, and its members include high-street names like Unilever, Cadbury’s, Nestlé and Tesco, as well as palm oil traders such as Cargill and ADM. Together, these companies represent 40 per cent of global palm oil trade.But since then, forest destruction has continued. Many RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent. On top of this, the RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry.
Our investigations – detailed in our report Cooking The Climate – found evidence that RSPO members are still relying on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands for their plantations. One member – Duta Palma, an Indonesian palm oil refiner – has rights to establish plantations on land which theoretically is protected by law.
There are ways to stop this. A moratorium on converting forest and peatland into oil palm plantations will provide breathing space to allow long-term solutions to be developed, while restoring deforested and degraded peatland provides a relatively cheap, cost effective way to make huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia. And governments around the world have to recognise the role deforestation plays in climate change, providing funds to help countries with tropical forests to protect their resources as well as reducing their own CO2 emissions.