The palm oil is currently the vegetable oil the most consumed in the world. The global production has been multiplied by four in 20 years, passing from 15,2 millions of tons in 1995 to 60 millions of tons in 2015. It is specially prized by the food industry, but we also find it in almost every products of current consumption, including cosmetics and biofuels.
Since a few years, the palm oil faces strong criticisms because it is the source of a huge ecological disaster. It’s been also accused of being bad for the health.
Why is it so popular ?
This oil, extracted from the palm tree, has the advantage of having a very low manufacturing cost for an enormous yield. By comparison, the production of other vegetable oils asks for a lot more of cultivable area : for one hectare, we get close to 4 tons of palm oil, against less than one ton of colza, sunflower or soybean oil.
Mainly produced in Asia, South America and Africa, the palm oil presents interesting attributes for importation. It is easy to ship on long distances because it stays half solid at an ambient temperature, thanks to its high saturated fatty acids content. It also can preserve for a long time, many years.
In what way the palm oil production is an issue ?
Disastrous ecological consequences
Oil palm trees have the particularity to grow within a humid and tropical weather. Plantations intrude on forests very rich in biodiversity. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two biggest producers with 85% of the world production. Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria share the rest.
In these countries, we assist to a massive deforestation for the benefit of the palm trees plantation. These tree cultivations represent 40% of the global deforestation related to intensive farming.
That’s not all : to cultivate palm trees, industrials clear fields with fire. Bushfires destroy ecosystems, soils and take part in the atmospheric pollution. Indeed, this method named “slash and burn” releases billions of tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and thus, contributes to the climate change.
Other agricultural practices are harmful to the environment. Extremely toxic pesticides are still too often used in the plantations, despite their interdiction by the EU. This is a monocrop, replacing forests. It generates a massive degradation of the plant diversity, but also of the birds, insects and mammals depending on it.
Wild animals threatened
Where tropical forests give in to palm trees fields extending endlessly, all of the wildlife is endangered. Many animals suffer from the destruction of their natural habitat, and sometimes even die from bushfires. They are also threatened by poaching, and are captured or killed when they wander in plantations, where their presence is seen as an inconvenience.
Orangutans are the most mediatized palm oil victims. It’s an endangered species, which only lives in a wild state in Indonesia and Malaysia. However, we noted a drastic decrease of their population in the past decades. When they don’t die in bushfires, orangutans are poached and end up on the black market. They are sold as pets or for their meat. At the current rate, they could disappear from the wild in the ten years to come.
But orangutans are not the only one suffering. In Asia, there are the rhinoceros, tigers, elephants and bears. In the African side, where the palm trees exploitation for the oil start to develop, other great apes are threatened: gorillas and chimpanzees.
Human and sanitary consequences
The palm oil production has impacts on the human being, particularly on the local populations. Bushfires produce toxic fumes which spread on long distances. These vapors are responsible for the death of thousands of people.
In the plantations, human rights protection organizations reveal serious violations, going from illegal expropriation of the local farmers to the workers exploitation. They work in abusive and dangerous conditions. Among the reasons are poverty and the use of toxic pesticides. It happens that women and children endure forced labour.
Measures taken to supervise the palm oil market
The legislation on the products labeling is at the top of the fight against palm oil. Labels “without palm oil” on products have been created, but are not mandatory. However, industrials mustn’t hide its presence under a generic designation such as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat”.
Since the begin of 2000, an RSPO certification exists on the palm oil made from the sustainable agriculture. It ensures that palm trees plantations haven’t replaced primary forests, and that the production was made respecting local populations and without child labour.
Some countries, mainly France and Germany are committed to use 100% of the palm oil made from sustainable agriculture from 2020.
What can we do ?
Should we boycott palm oil ?
It’s not that simple, but it is important. Other vegetable oils, like the sunflower, rape or olive oil have less consequences on the environment and are better for the human health.
They are more expensive and less productive, and so are less used for the conception of diverse products. However, many elements similar to the palm oil exist. Take the time to look at ingredients and slowly operate a change in your alimentation. You will notice that you can still find the same type of product, in a less quantity of course, but they exist. You will then make a real move for the nature, local populations and yourself.
It is naturally rich in vitamin A and nutrients. Its consumption in a moderate way is a priori safe. For you health, emphasize non hydrogenated oil. The oil transformed by the food industry by refinement can pose risks. When hydrogenated, it contains trans fatty acids which increase cholesterol level and cardiovascular diseases.
Warning : organic products can contain palm oil. Check the packaging informations to better choose your product.
Act to protect endangered species
To participate to the animal protection and encourage industrials to adopt more respectful practices, you can also bring your support to diverse organizations :
LFPO (French League of Orangutans Protection)
Kalaweit, which acts in the field to protect primates, mainly by buying lands.
Online petitions :