Climate Crisis and the Environment

Is giving up palm oil really the Answer?       

Iceland’s recently banned advert shows the tragic tale of a baby orangutan losing its home due to deforestation at the hands of palm oil. In light of this thought-provoking advertisement, many have taken to social media promising to boycott palm oil made products and subsequently save the rainforest – but is this the best step to take?

Global demand for palm oil has increased in the last few years, with almost 70 million tons being produced in 2017. In order to keep up such high demand there are currently 17 hectares of palm oil plantations across the globe. These plantations have resulted in vast quantities of land being bulldozed across the equator and have ultimately taken the homes of many of our most endangered species. As Iceland’s advert reminded us, 25 orangutans are killed every day due to deforestation.

So, what could be so bad about avoiding palm oil?

Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as it seems. Undoubtedly, palm oil is a problem. And boycotting the product could have positive implications for our planet, but only if we were willing to give up all types of vegetable oil that require a similar space to grow.

“taken the homes of many of our most endangered species”

However, the way our global market currently works, reducing the usage of palm oil would require another product to fill its “gap”. This would likely result in an increased usage of even less sustainably produced products. Other sources used to produce vegetable oils, for example rapeseed and soybeans yield far less oil per unit of land and require more environmentally harmful chemicals to produce and maintain.

Palm oil crops on average harvest four to ten times more oil per hectare than other crops. This means that if palm oil demand stops, rapeseed and soybean will have to step up subsequently requiring more forest space to yield the same amount of oil. This would also influence the geography of plantations, which currently are based largely in Indonesia and Malaysia, moving them to areas of the Amazon which already are under huge amounts of environmental pressure.

So, what can we do?

Sadly, there is no quick fix for this problem. However, one thing we can do is buy sustainable palm oil. In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed as an organisation aiming to certify products which use palm oil that has been sustainably sourced. The RSPO use eight principles to determine whether the palm oil can be considered “sustainable”. These include; environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity; responsible consideration of communities affected by growers and mills and commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity. By following this criteria, RSPO aim to cut down the environmental impact of production and create a palm oil that is less damaging to the forests, the animals and the communities that live there. The logo can be found on products which use palm oil that has been harvested under RSPO’s criteria.

“rapeseed and soybean… requiring more forest space to yield the same amount of oil”

As well as this buying fresh foods that don’t require the use of vegetable oils and cooking meals from scratch can reduce your intake of palm oil – and probably make you a better chef too!

And finally, although Iceland’s advertising may not have considered the long-term implications of its message, the fact that it is has made deforestation a mainstream issue has done some serious good in at least raising awareness and creating a conversation about it when usually swept under the carpet by large corporations.

Lois Barton

Featured image courtesy of Christopher A. Dominic via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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