Cohort 3 BGF-er Jemba has written an informative piece about an environmental topic she is passionate about: deforestation and palm oil. Read on below to find out more about the topic, along with what you can do to combat the problem.
The chances are very high that, if you turn over any packaged product in the supermarket, that package would contain palm oil. Palm oil is found in absolutely everything from household products and food, to make-up and other cosmetics to even biofuels. In fact, it is said that nearly 50% of all supermarket products today contain palm oil. Palm oil is inexpensive, multipurpose and commonly used, so how could this all-seemingly perfect oil be a problem? The problem with palm oil is not the product itself but how it is manufactured and the industry behind it. The palm oil industry is responsible for destroying ecosystems and habitats, ruining lives and helping our climate change problem increase at a rapid rate.
What is palm oil?
According to worldwildlife.org, “[Palm oil] is a high-quality oil used mainly for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics, and, to a small extent, biofuel”. Fundamentally, it is an all-purpose oil which companies can easily and effectively mass produce for other companies to use in their products. Regrettably, the cost of palm oil on our Earth and the environment is nowhere near as cheap.
How is it produced?
The production of palm oil is by far where the industry’s worst effects come from. Palm oil is grown all throughout Africa, Asia and North and South America and it has to keep up with the consumers need for palm oil. This means that the natural-occurring palm plants, where palm fruit grows on the trees over time, and once ripe they are picked, crushed, and turned into oil, cannot keep up with the great demand. This means that these mass companies make their own plantations, some of which can stretch for miles and miles. To create these plantations, the companies cut down miles upon miles of forest, most of which are priceless rainforests which can support nearly 50% of animal species on Earth.
But surely, they are planting trees in replace of trees, so it doesn’t make any difference? These forests have rich and complex ecosystems and when one component is removed, the ecosystem cannot recover. When these palm oil plantations are grown, miles of these valuable ecosystems collapse, and likely will never be able to recover.
Impact on animals
The palm oil industry is one of the largest contributors to the current rate of extinction in our world. The Sumatran tiger, once a flourishing species in the area of Sumatra in Indonesia, is being pushed to the point of extinction. And to make matters worse, the insatiable palm oil producers have started to push into reserves in Sumatra set aside for these tigers, cutting down whole forests without considering their effects. This relentless habitat destruction, and influences from poachers, have brought the Sumatran tiger closer to extinction than it ever has been. If the trend continues, these beautiful tigers will be extinct in less than three years.
Another animal to bear the brunt of the palm oil industry is the orangutan. These beautiful apes, who have now become synonymous with palm oil, have been found buried alive, and even killed by fierce weaponry; not to mention that their homes are constantly being destroyed. It has been said that over 50,000 orangutans have died due to palm oil has in the past two decades. If the palm oil industry carries along this path, then orangutans will be extinct in the next 5-10 years. And these are just two of the many, many species in similar situations.
Impact on the environment
However, forests are some of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce. They are one of the reasons that the effects of Climate Change have been held off for so long. However, as we continue to destroy forests, not only are they not able to absorb any more carbon, but nearly all of the carbon they had previously absorbed is released back into the atmosphere, speeding up the process of Climate Change.
A study in Indonesia assessed the carbon emissions from converting rainforest land into palm oil plantations. It was found that ‘one hectare of converted land equates to a loss of 174 tons of carbon, and most of this carbon will find its way into the air as CO2. The quantity of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow palm oil is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva to New York.’
What can you do?
Boycotting palm oil is not always the answer, demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.
Where possible buy products which use fair trade palm oil. For example, FairPalm is grown by smallholder farmers in West Africa – where palm oil plants are indigenous, grown naturally alongside other crops.
WWF have created a tool with which to assess whether a brand is using sustainable palm oil – http://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/
The problem is not palm oil in and of itself. The main problem is the destruction of new areas of rainforest to grow it, and the way in which the plantations are run.
However, while stopping palm oil production may not be the answer, a sustainable solution is needed urgently, as a UNEP report explains: ‘The surface of land suitable for palm oil production is shrinking in Southeast Asia, forcing the palm oil industry to return to Africa, and develop new horizons in Central and South America. This expansion requires a careful examination of the advantages and disadvantages of palm oil development and the identification of more effective ways to maximize benefits while minimizing social and environmental costs.’
As Sir David Attenborough says: ‘You fly over Indonesian rainforests, burning and clearing for the production of palm oil and hear so many tuts and “isn’t that just awful”. But we are to be held accountable. Palm oil is in so many products we eat […] – we can’t do without it. It’s easy enough to blame the Indonesians, but we’re buying into it; it’s down to us.’