Why is palm oil so bad?

To sign the Greenpeace petition to stop big brands from using unsustainable palm oil in their products, click here.

Despite many of us hearing whispers about the widespread use of cheap palm oil and its effects on the environment for a couple of years now, the public are starting to feel the rumble caused by a new huge campaign. This has been led by Greenpeace and, rather unexpectedly, Iceland.

You've very probably seen their Christmas video about an orangutan that's been left homeless due to the production of palm oil, which was banned from being aired on TV but has gone viral online. Iceland themselves have removed palm oil from all their own-brand foods, which is a huge step forward that other supermarkets and food brands need to follow.

What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is made from the fruits and seeds of African oil palm trees, grown mainly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is super cheap to use, and really versatile so tends to be the fat of choice for many food and beauty products. Seriously, just check the ingredients of some of your food at home, and it's likely that at least half of them contain palm oil (if not, then well done!).

Why is palm oil bad for the environment?
The demand for palm oil is so great, that new plantations are springing up constantly in a bid to keep up. African oil palm trees grow best in low-lying, hot and wet climates, which is naturally where rainforests tend to be. These rainforests, which are areas of great biodiversity and homes to many endangered animal species, get torn down to make way for the huge palm oil plantations. In fact, a football-pitch-sized area of rainforest is torn down every 25 seconds on average. This has been devastating for species at risk, such as the Borneo elephants, Sumatran tigers and, of course, orangutans. Orangutan numbers have fallen by 150,000 between 1999 and 2015.

Deforestation can happen either by trees being felled or, more commonly, by fires being purposefully spread. Not only does this quickly kill hundreds of animals living in these forests, but the burning itself releases greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

The deforestation and the new roads built for easy access to the new plantations can also be utilised by poachers and wildlife hunters, who prey on those few alive, terrified and confused animals that are left once the fires burn out. Without the forest to hide and protect them, these animals are at even more risk of being hunted or captured.

Palm oil production is harmful to humans too. There have been reports of many indigenous people who have been driven out of their homes by plantation owners to make room for more palm oil tree crops, as well as multiple human rights violations.

Clearly, the producers of palm oil have a lot to answer for, and it's time that we, as consumers, put a stop to this unnecessary destruction of valuable rainforests and the animals that live there.

What about sustainable palm oil?
You may have heard about sustainable palm oil and the RSPO. When any of the British supermarkets (bar Iceland, of course) have been called out about their use of palm oil, they have all insisted that they haven't done anything wrong because their palm oil is from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The RSPO is the world's largest palm oil certification scheme and, similar to Fairtrade and its products, it certifies certain palm oils as 'sustainable' if they meet certain criteria. But, deforestation is not considered in the RSPO's criteria, so palm oil could have been grown on a patch of land specifically deforested and still be 'RSPO sustainable'. Its standards also do not ban the destruction of peatlands, which is another way that palm oil growth can damange the environment. For this and other reasons, some environmentalists have accused RSPO of being a greenwash, which is when something claims to be better for the environment than it actually is.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) carried out a study that discovered that 'sustainable' palm oil is only slightly better than normal palm oil in terms of preventing environmental damage (deforestation, peatland destruction, decreases in biodiversity etc). Clearly, more needs to be done to protect nature from people and their palm oil.

But, banning palm oil completely might have terrible consequences because people would seek an alternative cheap vegetable oil to take its place, and the problem would be replaced by a different oil.

So what is the best thing for us to do?
Personally, I've decided to try to cut out foods that contain palm oil. It's tough though, because it really is in everything - chocolate, biscuits, spread, processed vegan alternatives, bread, shampoos. The list goes on and on. If anything, this shows how pervasive the palm oil problem is, and how important it is that we change our ways.

As individuals, we need to think about how much we are driving the demand for products that contain palm oil. So what do these foods have in common? They are heavily processed, they are pretty bad for your health and now we know that they are also bad for the environment. This is why home-cooked meals are the way forward - with fresh simple ingredients, where you add your own oil (if you use it) such as olive oil or sunflower oil. Food is so much tastier when you've made it yourself and you can have that extra feeling of satisfaction, knowing that you haven't contributed to the palm oil crisis.

Since turning vegan, I definitely pay a lot more attention to food labels than I did before, and now I've started adding palm oil to the list of no-nos that I look out for (no more Oreos for me!). Even if it's just a few products that you cut out of your diet, you can really make a difference to the environment.

Of course, the other way to help is to speak about palm oil. You can sign petitions, tweet about it or just mention it to a friend. Conversations lead to action, and they can inspire change both here in the UK and in all the countries desperately trying to keep up with our palm oil craze.

If boycotting Oreos will help to save the world, then its a small price to pay.

Final reminder that if you want to sign the Greenpeace petition to stop big brands from using unsustainable palm oil in their products, then click here and add your name!

1. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/faqs-palm-oil-answered/
2. https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil#start
3. http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php
4. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/palm-oil-found-can-avoid/
5. https://www.theweek.co.uk/94596/what-foods-and-beauty-products-contain-palm-oil
6. https://theconversation.com/palm-oil-boycott-could-actually-increase-deforestation-sustainable-products-are-the-solution-106733

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