Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What's all this about palm oil?

On discussing what our blog should focus on this week, it was agreed that we should look into Easter Eggs and which ones are better than others in terms of sustainability and ethical supply chains. We love making these kinds of comparisons because the environment is our thing, but the Guardian got there first:

Taking inspiration from this, I decided to delve into the production of palm oil. What is it, where is it from and, mainly, why is its use causing such a fuss?

Why do we use so much palm oil?

Image from
Palm oil comes from the fruit growing on African, American and maripa oil palms. These trees are native to the tropics with the highest yields coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. It is typically red in colour due to its beta-carotene content. Used in commonly in cooking throughout the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil, large food companies around the globe are demanding vast quantities of palm oil in response to changes in labeling legislation.

In the UK, since 2007, trans fatty acids have been abruptly rejected by pretty much all supermarkets. The British Medical Journal has made demands for trans fat to be virtually eliminated from our food as it contributed to a unfeasibly large proportion of cardiovascular disease deaths.

Palm oil offers much the same qualities as trans fats and is still considered unhealthy but is considered acceptable by the Food Standards Agency. On labels, it can be classed as ‘vegetable oil’.

What’s the problem?

The trouble with the switch in demand from trans fat sources to palm oil is that it is starting to have a catastrophic impact on the rainforests of Asia. With Indonesia being the world’s major exporter of palm oil it is alarming that Triputra Agro Persada , the palm oil company, is alleged to be aspiring to increase its planted area by about two thirds from 2013 to 2015. Their spiel on sustainability is confusing and vague, and that still applies even after I figured out how to translate it from Indonesian. You may as well not bother. 

Activist groups such as Rainforest Rescue, Greenpeace, Say No to Palm Oil and the Rainforest Action Network are working hard to raise awareness of the severe environmental impact the farming of this foodstuff leaves behind.

Each of these websites, and many others I’m sure, hit upon these main themes concerning the damage synonymous with palm oil production:
  • ·         Rainforest inhabitants such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Bornean rhinos are reducing in numbers.
  • ·         Tribes and indigenous people are having to give up their homes, their livelihood, traditions and culture.
  • ·         The CO2 emissions of farming palm oil where peatlands are drained and rainforest is depleted.
For more on any of the above topics, I suggest that you visit one of the four websites and take a look at the statistics. It is not good news.

One way in which you can at least be a little greener is to take note of the aforementioned Guardian article and choose an Easter Egg that is just that bit more responsible for the environment. You can then feel terribly smug when you eat the entire thing in one go this Easter Sunday and justify it by doing your bit for the rainforest and not contributing to the devastation of palm oil production. 

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