Many synthetic ingredients used in our daily products or synthetic products used to make our foods are not good for us or the environment – like BPA, plastics, fossil fuels, colourants, synthetic fragrances, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. But there are many ‘natural’ or even organic items that we consume that also have a negative impact on our collective society and our shared ecosystems – like paper, wood, soybeans, palm oil, etc.
I am going to explore and examine palm oil from a consumer, retailer, and an ecological perspective.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that is extracted from the flesh of the palm plant. The palm plant is native to the African continent but has been introduced to many tropical/subtropical countries – most notably Malaysia and Indonesia. It produces a good amount of vegetable oil for the area of land it is cultivated on. It is a saturated fat and does not have any trans fats.
Most palm oil used by manufacturers is ‘Refined, Bleached and Deodorized Palm Oil’ (usually referred to as RBDPO). If the palm oil is red it means that it was mechanically and usually cold-pressed to extract the oil. This is the type you should purchase if you are going to using it for a recipe at home. The red colour comes from the high level of carotene in the fruit.
It is normally ‘solid/semi-solid’ at room temperature.
The problem with Palm Oil
A lot of the problem around palm oil was created when the US government decided that ‘transfats’ were not healthy for us and had them removed from processed foods. Manufacturers then looked around for another vegetable oil that fit within their price range. Palm oil was the vegetable oil of choice. It was grown in countries that were hungry for investment and export money. Many of these countries had governments that were susceptible to brides or influences from big business.
Malaysia and Indonesia were the two countries that were the ‘winners’ of the great palm oil lottery. The got investment, they got exports, and some people got quite wealthy. The downside is that monoculture crops are grown efficiently in large plantations and since most lands were already growing foodstuffs to address their needs new land had to be found to grown these plants.
Most of these countries are covered by tropical rainforests and so the industry decided that is where the new plantations would be put (much like the clearing of the Amazon for soybean production to feed livestock and the industrial food complex). Well, the inhabitants of the rainforests were not taken into account – most notably the trees themselves and orangutans.
There are also major environmental concerns about the peatlands that are under these rainforests and the releasing of the methane gases that will be released from them when the trees are removed.
But it is the orangutans that are the icon of the rainforest destruction.
Palm oil is inexpensive because the industry, as most industries, is not paying anywhere near the full cost of the end product. Most of the costs have been externalized – diversity loss, habitat loss, rainforest loss, carbon sink loss, orangutans, erosion, mudslides, population dislocation, water filtration, air filtering, and more.
ANY time that a plant is grown in large plantation/mono-crop it is bad for the environment.
Jobs from Palm Oil?
Yes, there have been many jobs created in the palm oil industry in Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia but what kind of jobs are they? For the large corporations to make money they need to ensure that their costs are as low as possible and therefore labour costs are at the best, subsistent. There is also talk of indentured slavery going on in the industry. Check out The Human Cost of Conflict Palm Oil video.
The working conditions and safety of the workers are also suspect in many of these countries. Not a respectful
Is all palm oil evil?
In 2004, the industry could see there was trouble on the horizon so they formed a non-profit organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote the ‘growth’ of palm oil in an environmentally friendly manner. The RSPO consisted of over 200 industry stakeholders including some of the world’s largest food companies like Pepsi, Unilever and Nestle. As long as the demand for palm oil keeps going up there will be a destruction of rainforests. As long as the industrial food complex wants as much profit from their manufactured foods then the rainforests will continue to be destroyed, people (workers) will be exploited, and the orangutans be damned!
The RSPO will act like the cigarette industry, the nuclear industry, the pesticide industry, et al and deny that there is as big a problem as there is, that poor practices are isolated, that they are working on the issues, etc. Basically, a pattern of delaying practices until such a time that they are caught red handed and have to pay damages, retribution, etc.
My spidey sense tells me that the RSPO is little more than greenwashing the industry since so little of the oil is being certified – business as usual!
Yes, there are organic palm oils out there. There are probably some Fair Trade palm oils out there. These are better options but kind of confuses the issue since people might think or even mislead – it’s okay – there is some palm oil that is okay and maybe the palm oil in my [_____] is okay.
That being said – the program and direct relationship that Bronner soaps may be one of the best regarding there sourcing of this ingredient in their soaps.
The World Wildlife Fund, which lent their name and branding to the formation of the RSPO, says on its website that palm oil “can be produced in a responsible manner that respects the environment and the communities where it is commonly grown.” BUT that does not mean that the sheer amount of palm oil that is being grown could all be grown sustainably. And of course, there is the price. Would those companies be willing to raise their prices and run the possibility that consumers may consume less of their product?
There are several apps that you can download to help guide you through the confusing world of palm oil ingredients such as PalmSmart.
Palm Oil Videos
This one is a promotional video by WWF for RSPO. Note – that it is small producers that hold the way to sustainability.
Check out these organizations and sources for more information
What do we stock that has Palm Oil in them?
We will work on an identification program for our store so that they are readily identifiable so that you can avoid palm oil those items that contain palm oil if you want to.
At present, I can tell you that the following products have palm oil in them:
- Bronner’s Castille liquid soaps
- Alberta Natural Products
- Soap Works soaps (except the hemp one)
- Genghis Grill Green Onion Cakes
- Earth balance Organic Spread
- Earth Balance Soy-Free Spread
- Earth Balance Baking Sticks