Is Palm Oil Really Bad? What is Sustainable Palm Oil?

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Palm oil. Many environmentalists believe it’s bad and should be avoided entirely. Others believe it has the potential to be a sustainable oil source in the right conditions. Today, we’re unpacking the truth about palm oil.


Since there is a lot of skepticism about palm oil, we’re going to talk about it in 3 categories:

  • Pros

  • Cons

  • Should I support palm oil or not?


Let’s get to it!


Taken from Google Images

The Pros of Palm Oil

Sustainable Palm Oil?


Certified sustainable palm oil and palm kernel oil are produced on plantations of palm that are independently audited and certified against the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was established in 2004 in order to help promote the responsible use of palm oil. Roughly 40% of the world’s producers of palm oil are part of the RSPO. There are 8 criteria and principles the RSPO holds their customers to:

  1. Commitment to transparency,

  2. Compliance with laws and regulations,

  3. Commitment to long-term economic viability,

  4. Use of best practices from growing to producing,

  5. Environmentally responsible and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity,

  6. Consideration for employees and the community affected by the growing,

  7. Responsible development of new plantings, and

  8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas.


There are many issues here we will unpack in the cons section, but for now, let’s try to still focus on the positives.



The biggest pro to palm oil is the yield


While producing any type of plant oil requires deforestation of all scales, palm oil can produce the same amount of product as most other vegetable oils using 9x less land. So, transitioning to vegetable oil or sunflower oil, in some cases, could lead to more deforestation. This is why some environmentalists think palm oil is okay, at least in moderation.


Basically, more palm oil can be produced from say 1 acre of land than other oil crops. Palm oil uses about 10% of the farmland dedicated to oil crops but produces 35% of the global plant oils. Palm oil is used in many of our beauty and food products. If we ban it, we will have to switch to more resource-intensive oils.


There is a low chance of an allergic reaction


This is a big deal since plant oils are widely used in our food and other things we put on our bodies. It does not contain any tree nut proteins so it is safe for tree nut sensitive people. It is even suspected that there is a low chance of an allergic reaction from most people. Considering most other oils we use (peanut, coconut, soybean, vegetable, etc) are common allergies for a lot of people, palm oil seems to be the safest option here.



The Cons to Palm Oil


Most of it is still produced unsustainably


As we learned in the pro section, there is still 60% of palm oil production that is not RSPO certified (we will get into issues with the certification in a minute). That is many acres of land in many countries going unregulated. When unregulated, palm oil production leads to deforestation, habitat loss, loss of biodiversity, endangerment of species, ecological imbalance, displacing people, poor labor conditions, excessive pesticides and herbicides, which all lead to climate change. It’s quite the snowball effect of poor farming practices for a few companies to make some money.


Even though palm oil is the most sustainable oil in terms of yield, it is still contributing so much to the issues listed. For example, in order to stop the destruction of biodiversity in SE Asia, palm oil farmers need to half deforestation completely. Our tropical rainforests are some of the most biodiverse places on earth, and they are being destroyed for a quick buck. Not to mention, orangutans, gibbons, and tigers as well as 191 other species are threatened by palm oil production and could eventually become endangered if not already.



The issues with RSPO


Here is their list of 8 principles again:

  1. Commitment to transparency,

  2. Compliance with laws and regulations,

  3. Commitment to long-term economic viability,

  4. Use of best practices from growing to producing,

  5. Environmentally responsible and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity,

  6. Consideration for employees and the community affected by the growing,

  7. Responsible development of new plantings, and

  8. Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas.


Some issues here:

  • These guidelines are extremely vague. How transparent is transparent enough?

  • What laws and regulations? Does this help produce ethically sourced palm oil as well?

  • Number three just makes it sound like as long as they continue to make a profit, it’s fine? Let me know your thoughts on this one.

  • What are the best practices? Does this mean best for the producer or best for the land, the animals, and the people of the region?

  • Number five is the big red flag for me. So many companies out there greenwash so hard and surely some of these certified RSPO brands do, too. They can be environmentally friendly as long as they’re not burning the forest down or using recycled packaging for example. “Eco-friendly” and “green” are vague words companies use a lot to make consumers feel better but they’re not always good.

  • I have huge issues with number six, too. Consideration for employees could be paying them minimum wage. Consideration for the community could be giving them money in return for taking their land. Now, I’m not sure what the stipulations really are, but this could be the outcome.

  • Responsible development of new plantings hopefully means these brands aren’t cutting down more trees to plant oil palms, but again, vague

  • Number 8 is so vague I don’t even have any comments



In fact, the RSPO was created in 2004 but it wasn’t until 2018 that they actually got their partners to stop destroying forests and this rule still has not been enforced on these companies. Roughly 3/4 of the forest fires in countries like Indonesia are on RSPO land. Turns out, this label might be bogus. Some companies probably follow the right practices, but when you pick up some Nestle that is RSPO certified, it is so hard to tell if that palm oil came from a truly sustainable farm or a greenwash-y type farm.


Overconsumption


Palm oil is cheap so we’re overconsuming it. It’s in everything from Nutella to bread to shampoo to laundry detergent. Roughly half of the processed foods in a supermarket contain some palm oil. Some palm oil gets turned into biofuel too. It can be disguised as many ingredients. Find the full list here.


The issue with this is that the more we consume (demand) the more they have to produce (supply). This trend has continued over the last 50 years or so when oil palms were transported from West Africa to SE Asia to be mass-farmed. The more they farm, the more trees they cut down, and the more environmental damage that is done.



Should I support palm oil?


Yes and no. It’s a tricky topic and now I know why environmentalists don’t talk about it. We can’t boycott palm oil because, truthfully, it is the most sustainable oil on the market. But, we need to buy palm oil in moderation and ask our brands and companies to omit oil from their ingredients altogether if possible. For example, a brand I’m reviewing soon, CONCENTR8ED. Sarah, the founder chooses to NOT use palm oil, and some bars contain no plant oil at all! We need to pressure other brands to avoid all oils, not just palm oil.


If you have to buy or use palm oil, get RSPO certified. I know, they’re far from perfect, but it’s the only certification we have.



Hopefully you learned a lot from this post, if you did, I would appreciate it if you shared it with others so that they would learn, too.


Thank you for reading along, as always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


Emma

46 views0 comments
IMG_0254.jpg

Emma

Dendler

Hey there! Thanks for stopping by! 

My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...

YOU CAN ALSO FIND ME ON 

  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White Pinterest Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
IMG_9992.JPG
Check out my YouTube channel