By now, you’ll have seen the recently banned Iceland advert, drawing attention to the issue of palm oil.
The advert focuses on the destruction its production causes to rainforests, and the effects this has on orangutans. But long before the advert came to light, palm oil has been a huge environmental issue. We take a look at what it is, why it’s used, and why it’s so detrimental.
(Source: Iceland Foods, youtube.com)
What is palm oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm, and it is the vegetable oil that is used in hundreds of thousands of food products, toiletries and cosmetics. The oil is in high demand around the world, and with this set to double by 2020, avoiding it is becoming more difficult than ever.
Palm oil is extremely popular for several reasons: it has excellent cooking properties, which it can maintain even under high temperatures. Its smooth and creamy smell also makes it a perfect ingredient in many recipes, including baked goods such as cookies.
The global appetite for palm oil has increased six-fold since 1990, and it’s found in half of all packaged goods on supermarket shelves. With many different names for the oil in ingredients lists, it makes it difficult to avoid it.
Here’s some names to watch out for:
- PKO – Palm Kernal Oil
- Sodium Laureth Sulphate
- Sodium Lauryl Sulphates
- Elaeis Guineensis
The effect on wildlife:
Rainforests in Indonesia are disappearing at a rate of one football pitch every 25 seconds due to palm oil production, and despite multinational companies promising to reform back in 2010, very little has been done to make any change.
Three species of orangutan have been massively affected by the deforestation for palm oil, with 10,000 Bornean orangutans killed in the last 16 years. Orangutans have been in decline since the 1960s, when deforestation for timber was in demand, but now palm oil is the main culprit.
The Sumatran orangutan heavily relies on forests, but since these are being ripped apart to provide land for palm oil plantations, Sumatran orangutan populations are being fragmented and isolated. Not only does deforestation for palm oil result in their food sources lessening, but it makes them easy targets for poaching and the illegal pet trade, and causes conflict with local communities as starving individuals are forced to resort to raiding crops. As a result, the Sumatran orangutan is on the edge of extinction, with only 14,600 remaining in the wild.
Maintaining forests around the world is vital to the ecosystem, as they are beneficial to all lifeforms, not only orangutans. Palm oil destruction is responsible for 8 per cent of the world’s deforestation from 1990 to 2008, and burning forests is accountable for high levels of air pollution in South East Asia.
But can’t we simply replace palm oil?
Sadly, it’s not as easy as we would like. Swapping palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) would only move the issues to a different crop. Crucially, much larger amounts of land would need to be used, since palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. Although using other vegetable oils seems like a practical solution, it would ultimately create similar, if not larger environmental and social problems. In fact, in 2016 WWF Germany conducted a study on palm oil, and found that there currently isn’t a sustainable alternative.
Here’s hoping that more research is done in the coming months to provide more sustainable, alternatives to palm oil, and that more big companies follow suit, like Iceland, to limit its usage.
You can help by actively avoiding products that contain palm oil, or by visiting www.rainforestfoundationuk.org to find out more.