What is Palm Oil?
Palm Oil is produced in the fruit of the Elaeis Guineensis plant. It is the most widely produced oil in the world and although originating in West Africa, around 90% of all palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Palm Oil is a high yielding crop which takes between 3-4 years to mature and produce fruit. The palm fruit itself, develops in bunches which can grow in excess of 10 kilograms, and contain hundreds of individual fruits about the size of a small plum or apricot. When the fruit is harvested, palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the fruit and palm kernel oil is produced by squeezing the oil from the internal seed.
It’s an incredibly versatile oil which is used in roughly 50% of items found on supermarket shelves including cleaning products, shampoos, soaps, candles, food items, vegetable oils, toothpaste and even bio-fuels.
What’s the big hype over Palm Oil?
Unfortunately, the way in which palm oil is farmed and manufactured most often leads to the destruction of the orangutan’s rainforest habitat. Because this mono culture is at odds with existing Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest ecosystems, it is also destroying the biodiversity of the region. The establishment of palm oil plantations on top of existing peat soils, which were until recently covered by peat swamp forests, leads to the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Due to increasing demand for palm oil, virgin rainforests are being decimated at a staggering rate, leaving orangutans nowhere to live. Displaced and confused, and having lost their source of food, the orangutans inevitably wander into the plantations, only to be killed by plantation workers, who often view them as pests.
The Orangutan Foundation International have reported there are even cases where orangutans have been run over by excavation equipment, doused in petrol and burnt alive, captured, tortured and shot. Shockingly, there are also bounties placed on orangutans because the mothers and babies are valuable on the illegal pet trade.
With palm oils ever-increasing demand, more than 300 football fields of rainforest are destroyed every hour in South East Asia to make way for more palm oil plantations.
How do I look out for Palm Oil?
You might imagine this to be quite easy, just look for the words “Palm Oil” on the ingredients list, right? Wrong.
Unfortunately it’s not quite that easy, and you might be surprised to learn that there are over 100 different ways it can be listed. For a full comprehensive list I recommend checking the Orangutan Foundation International Australia page.
Here’s the shortlist of the most commonly used terms:
For most of us, we put that overwhelming list in the ‘too hard basket’. Luckily there are a few easy ways to take the overwhelm out of it and shop as consciously as we can.
First, this handy little list above has been made into a wallet card by the Orangutan Foundation International Australia and they are more than happy to post one out to you so you can stash it in your wallet for easy access while you are out shopping. To find out more or download your copy, simply click here.
Secondly, there is an amazing smartphone app available made by the very clever people over at Palm Oil Investigations which is a barcode scanner! It can’t really get much easier than that to shop consciously. Oh wait, yes it could, I guess if a scanned product contained unsustainable palm oil and they gave you a list of alternative products you could buy which either contained no palm oil or at least Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Hang on, yep, the app does that too! And did I mention it is available on android and ios and it’s totally FREE!
Scan Results fall into 5 categories from highest to lowest rating:
- Palm Oil Free (BEST)
- Active No Deforestation Policy
- RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil
- RSPO Mass Balance (mixed certified with uncertified)
- Fail (WORST)
Some of these terms explained
The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil for people, planet and prosperity. The RSPO website states there are 8 principles for growers to be RSPO certified.
- Commitment to transparency
- Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
- Commitment to long term economic and financial viability
- Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
- Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
- Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
- Responsible development of new plantings
- Commitments to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
But a manufacturer can claim to be a member of the RSPO without actually sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), so consumers need to be aware that just because RSPO is mentioned in brand statements, it doesn’t mean that brand is always using certified sustainable oil.
Currently there are only 4-5 palm oil companies (out of about 90 RSPO companies) whose palm oil can legitimately be traced back to a sustainable plantation with 100% certainty. Some of the biggest palm oil companies in the world are RSPO members but investigations on the ground suggest some companies are NOT adhering to their promised commitments, and are continuing to pull down virgin rainforest. Under RSPO guidelines, a palm oil company must not develop new plantations on forested areas that have been cleared after 2005 and are not to use burning to clear forested areas. Both are still happening.
Rainforests continue to be cleared at a staggering rate of 300 football fields an hour.
While RSPO has brought much needed publicity to the issue, however, until all companies start producing certified sustainable palm oil, which is 100% traceable, it’s difficult to have trust in any of the RSPO companies.
For example, sometimes companies will say…
“The company supports the production of sustainable palm oil and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)”
Remember even though a company is a member of the RSPO it does not necessarily mean that they are purchasing certified sustainable palm oil.
It means they have made a commitment to EVENTUALLY purchase sustainable palm oil.
MASS BALANCED PALM OIL~
This means that some of the oil palm used is from a Certified Sustainable Palm Oil plantation (see explanation below) but not all, it is mixed with conventional oil palm to produce the end product- mixed palm oil.
This stands for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and is the only palm oil which can be legitimately traced back to the source of origin which has gained its certification as growing sustainably. Sustainably means no deforestation and ethical standards are followed (as listed above).
Currently only 21% of Global Palm Oil holds RSPO Certification.
It’s worth noting here that neither of the organisations mentioned above have paid me in any way, I am linking to them because I truly believe what they are doing is amazing work and support them all the way in that!