Palm Oil: What Is It and How to Avoid It

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From the food you eat to the toothpaste used to wash it away, palm oil is found in thousands of everyday products. Harvested from the fruit of oil palms, this edible fat is cheap to produce, versatile, and the most resource efficient source of vegetable oil, making up 45 percent of the supply and employs 6 million worldwide including smallholder farmers.

So why is palm oil so bad? Here is the truth…

Palm oil is an amazing product, but the impact of harvesting palm oil to meet modern demand has decimated animal populations and caused extreme harm to the environment.

Impacts on Animals, Rainforests, and People

100,000 orangutans have died in the last 16 years and countless species of tigers, rhinos, elephants, and more have been threatened to extinction due to deforestation set forth by palm oil plantations. Originally, the palm oil tree was only found in the tropics of West Africa. However, when the crop was commercialized in the 1970s it was transplanted to other humid climates around the world that could support it. Today, the annual production of palm oil is just shy of 70 million metric tons. To meet this demand, rainforests are cleared at a rate of up to 300 football fields worth of land every hour to make room for palm oil plantations. Plantations can now be found in West Asia, North and South America with 86 percent of the world’s supply produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are home to some of the world’s great biodiversity. However, just because these climates are similar to where the palm oil tree originates does not make them perfect.

In Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest palm oil suppliers, most of the farmland for palm oil rests on peat. Peat is made up old, water-logged vegetation that needs to be drained in order to farm on it. However, once dry it becomes extremely flammable, creating a hotbed for forest fires. Plus, it creates a smoke problem during the “slash-and-burn” phase of palm oil farming—where the old crops are burned out to make way for the new. However, peat is extremely efficient at removing CO2 from the air. Removing water from peat not only eliminates its CO2 absorbing abilities, but it also releases a dangerous haze when burned and has contributed to the death of 100,000 Southeast Asians each year.

The Problem with Avoiding Palm Oil

Alright, so you are convinced. You will stop purchasing products with “palm oil” listed as an ingredient and over time the rainforests will be restored.

Wrong.

Palm oil and its derivatives hide amongst over 200 names. Some names like “palm kernel oil” and “palmitate” can be identified by likeness, while names like “sodium lauryl sulphate” and “glycerol” are more obscure.

Even if someone was able to identify all 200+ pseudonyms, an all-out boycott is not recommended by top environmentalists. Again, palm oil trees are the most efficient resource for obtaining vegetable oil in terms of water and land use when compared to soy and canola. For these experts the answer is not giving up palm oil but urging farmers to take on sustainable practices. Unfortunately, this takes time and you want to act now.

What You Can Do

Avoid what you can, go homemade for what you can’t.

From bagels, to mustards, to cookies and candy bars, processed foods are one of the biggest hiding spots for palm oil. While finding out that palm oil is hiding in your favourite snack can be a huge disappointment you can breathe a sigh of relief.

With resources like Google and Pinterest anybody can look up recipes for their favourite name brand treats. In addition to being free of palm oil a lot of these homemade treats contain more whole ingredients and are healthier than the commercialized originals. Try it yourself and makes these homemade sour patch candies, taffy, or chocolate peanut butter cups. If you are ambitious you can try making your own palm oil free shampoo, conditioner, household cleaners and more.

Shop sustainability.

While some of us may love the DIY-route for removing palm oil from our lives, others are wondering where they could possibly find the time to do so. Fortunate for those there is the power of the dollar.

Some companies are in the process or have already made the switch to only using sustainably sourced palm oil in their products. The World Wildlife Fund created a scorecard that shoppers can use to compare brands on their sources of palm oil.

Another route shoppers can take is buying from small businesses. While this is not a sure-fire way to shop palm oil free, small and local businesses generally use fewer ingredients and are more transparent about what goes into their products. They are also easier to reach if you want to encourage other businesses to make the change to sustainably sourced palm oil.

Join or start a group.

There is a group for everything on the internet and that includes palm oil advocates. Online groups are a great place to hold discussions about palm oil, share palm oil free recipes, and advance your knowledge on everything you need to do to make ethical choices about palm oil. Palm Oil Investigations and Palm Oil Free Certification Orangutan Alliance are two active palm oil groups on Facebook that regularly post helpful information.

Educate others.

Finally, the most important thing you can do to help in the fight against palm oil is educate others. Educating your family and friends on the changes you made to avoid unsustainable sources of palm oil and why is the best way to create a ripple effect. It is also important to contact your favourite companies that have not made the change yet to sustainable sources of palm oil and express the benefits for the business and the planet if the change was made.

Hopefully, now you feel more aware not only as a consumer, but as a global citizen.

Written by Kiaya Freeze

agriculture
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