Palm Oil: An Unsustainable Oil

Palm oil comes from palm fruit which is for the most part grown in South East Asia (primarily Borneo and Sumatra, home of Pongo Pygmaeus, the Orangutan). Almost 100 years ago the population of Orangutans was around 230,000. Now both the Bornean and the Sumatran Orangutan count has dropped to an estimated 45,000 (Bornean) and 7,500 (Sumatran). Both populations face daily threats to their survival and are highly endangered due to the widespread cultivation of palm oil, logging, and poaching. These are but a few examples of human interference and exploitation of animal habitat in South East Asia.

Slash and burn agriculture for palm cultivation does not only endanger the Orangutans, but over 80 endemic species, including the tiger and the elephant. According to the Orangutan Project, 300 football fields worth of lush and diverse rainforest are destroyed daily in order to cultivate palm oil, which is a main ingredient in many of the processed/packaged foods as well as body and beauty products sold all over the world. Nearly 80% of the Orangutan's habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years in order to maximize profits for corporations in the palm oil industry. We have to stop devastating the lungs of our planet and killing animals for material gain.  

For me sustainability has everything to do with demand. The main drivers of deforestation on the planet are cattle ranching, plant agriculture, mining, and logging.  Because the consumer demand for beef, soybeans and corn to feed cattle, palm oil, metals, and exotic wood is exponentially high, the rainforests in the Amazon, Africa, and South East Asia are being cut down by the second. Most of us are not aware that our demand for these products is exceeding the planet's resources. There are people in the industry that seek to hide the impact of our high demand to further perpetuate their own greed. Simply stated, the demand for palm oil is too high. This means that even buying "sustainable" palm oil is unsustainable.  

Doesn't supporting the "sustainable palm" industry ultimately protect the rainforest? Some will say that if consumers in European countries, the United States and Australia were to call for a boycott on palm oil, then there would be no reason left to fight for sustainability, because the consumers who care about protecting the rainforest would no longer be buying the product. The fear is that companies wouldn't care about sourcing sustainable palm oil for their products. This argument gives us two choices. We either support certified "sustainable" products and thus protect the rainforest, or we boycott and leave the fate of our planet's lungs in the hands of South East Asia, whose environmental regulations are slim to none. I don't agree with this. I think there are good reasons to boycott palm oil production. 

Let's apply this theory to "sustainable fishing." We have overfished our oceans. To encourage people to support the ocean by buying sustainable fish is insane. At this point, ANY fish we take from the ocean is unsustainable. Does this mean I should keep eating "sustainable fish" because I'm afraid that if I don't, no one will protect the ocean? Absolutely not. Organizations like the Ocean Conservancy are not going to stop defending the oceans, just like the Rainforest Action Network will not stop protecting the rainforest if the demand for palm oil disappears. 

How To Spot Palm Oil:

Palm oil and its derivatives are often disguised from consumers in a variety of ingredients. Over 50% of packaged foodstuffs (especially snack food) contain palm oil. It's also important to note that palm oil is in many vegan packaged and processed foods. In fact, I dare to say that palm oil is not vegan at all due to the thousands of animal species that are being killed to produce it.

Here are just a few of the names for palm oil: Elaeis guineensis, Etyl palmitate, Glyceryl, Hydrogenated palm glycerides, Octyl palmitate, Palm fruit oil, Palm kernel, Palm kernel oil, Palm stearine, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmitic acid, Palmitoyl oxostearamide, Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, Palmityl alcohol, Palmolein, Sodium kernelate, Sodium laureth sulfate, Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate, Sodium lauryl sulfate, Sodium palm kernelate, Stearate, Stearic acid, Vegetable fat, Vegetable oil.

What We Can Do:

  • Eat less packaged food!
  • See how many of our body/beauty products contain palm oil and switch them out for DIY versions.
  • Read the ingredients, even when shopping in the bulk bins. Organic doesn't mean palm oil free. 
  • Make our own snack foods. I believe anyone can make a tasty sweet treat at home from scratch without palm oil.
  • If we're going to buy a product with palm oil, then it's possible to opt for RSPO certified; however, RSPO standards are extremely vague, and it's not clear how they are enforced. 

What Is "RSPO Certification?"

The Round Table On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides certification for palm oil plantations if they meet the requirements for sustainable palm oil production. It's questionable what the social and environmental standards of RSPO actually are and how they are being enforced. For example, when something is RSPO certified we can't assume that the palm isn't being grown on previously cleared rainforest land. Billions of people are using palm oil everyday and our planet cannot support that demand, sustainable or not. I was bummed to find out that Dr. Bronners uses palm oil-- I'll be switching up my All Purpose Cleaner with a palm oil free soap alternative.

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