Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Palm oil is one of the most widely used natural products, appearing on ingredients lists of food and beauty products as well as being used for biofuel and animal feed. The vegetable oil which is harvested from the fruit of palm trees accounts for around a third of global crop oils, making its way into almost half of all packaged items in supermarkets.
Palm oil is extremely versatile, it is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; and it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. As well as being versatile, compared to other vegetable oils the oil palm is a very efficient crop, able to produce high quantities of oil over small areas of land, almost all year round. However, palm oil is not sustainable, its production damages lands, destroys animal habitats and produces large amounts of methane. There are plenty of alternatives to palm oil and nations, companies and cooperatives need to start transitioning away from it. Chester in the UK has been labelled the first ‘sustainable palm oil city’ after a collection of organisations in the city led by Chester Zoo have started to impact change.
The problems with palm oil outweigh the benefits, the threat the industry poses to the planet is severe. Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests produce over 85% of the global supply of palm oil, there are fears that at the current rate of production these rainforests could disappear. Over 26 million rainforest acres have been cleared for palm oil production thus far, reducing our planets capacity to produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Habitat destruction is a major devastating result of the palm oil industry, many endangered species rely on the preservation of rainforests. Orangutans, elephants, and rhino numbers are dwindling at alarming rates in part due to the palm oil industry. The destruction of the forests through burning them releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Fires in peat areas are particularly difficult to put out. The smoke and haze from these blazes have health consequences throughout Southeast Asia. Palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity. Aside from harvesting, the production and refining process is equally as damaging. A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. This effluent causes pollution to freshwater areas which heads downstream negatively effecting biodiversity. Poor working conditions and exploitation of workers including children is also a growing issue with the industry. There are products now containing what is labelled as ‘sustainable palm oil’, although there are questions over whether palm oil can ever be truly sustainable this palm oil will be still be far more ethical than standard palm oil.
It is clear that with everything we know about palm oil that there has to be a fundamental change in how we use it and how much of it we use. One city implementing such change is Chester in the UK, more than 50 local organisations, including restaurants and the city's university, have committed to changing the way they buy palm oil. The organisations involved have removed unsustainable products from their supply chains, switching to sustainable alternatives and have made time-bound pledges to use only 100% sustainable palm oil products. The idea is not to eradicate palm oil use but to rather phase it down and find ways to make it sustainable. Conservationists have warned against the complete phase out of palm oil as this would lead to the increased production more damaging crop oils, such is the global demand for edible vegetable oils. Those involved in the campaign believe that it is a significant step towards preventing further deforestation and habitat destruction. Cat Barton, Field Programmes Manager at Chester Zoo, stated that “We are already seeing the wider impact of the campaign. More cities are now engaging in talks to follow this model and major large companies nationwide are working with us to make the switch to sustainable palm oil.” Oxford, Plymouth and the village of Mochdre in north Wales are following Chester’s lead, with more expected to follow. The UK government is also working on plans to ban large companies from using palm oil and other products from illegally deforested land. Hopefully, the use of only sustainable palm oils becomes widespread globally, if not then the biodiversity crisis will continue to worsen to unprecedented levels.