Palm oil… you’ve probably all heard of it, that magic, odourless, vegetable oil that we use in, well… pretty much everything. Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) cultivation often results in large swathes of land being deforested for plantations, resulting in habitat destruction and displacement of both animals and people. The poster-child for palm oil related deforestation is the Orangutan, specifically their displacement in Borneo and Sumatra, with almost 80% of their habitat disappearing in the last 20 years with around 6,000 individual animals lost per year.South-east Asia has some of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, and with 3.5 million hectares cleared for palm oil plantations in the last 20 years, Orangutans are not the only species at serious risk. The Sumatran Elephant, Bornean Pigmy Elephant, Sumatran Rhino and the Sumatran Tiger are all either endangered or critically endangered.
Palm oil is in so many everyday products what can we actually do to prevent this becoming an even bigger issue? Well, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is working to prevent the environmental and social issues associated with palm oil production:
In many ways it is better to buy sustainably certified palm oil products than alternatives, it produces 4-10 times the amount of oil than other crops, thus taking up less land, the industry sustains millions of people, and its properties give some foodstuffs their characteristic texture and taste (I recently tried a palm oil free, rival brand of a certain famous hazelnut chocolate spread and it was just plain nasty!).
I’ve been trying to avoid unsustainable palm oil where ever I can for quite a while now – as a biscuit lover it has been pretty challenging! One of the things I have noticed for starters is that not many products seem to be labelled sustainable for palm oil, unlike certifications like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ for tea, coffee and coco. Take my experience with nasty chocolate spread above, turns out Ferrero do use RSPO certified, but it’s not evident on Nutella packaging and I didn’t think to google it prior to purchasing the nasty alternative. Perhaps more labelling would be a step in the right direction…
New to the party is my friend Sarah. One of our favourite past times is drinking tea and eating cake (which unless we make it ourselves chances are it’s got at least some palm oil in it). Sarah has decided to challenge herself to see if she can avoid non-sustainable palm oil altogether and very kindly has agreed to let me blog about it. We are planning to post about how she gets on over the next few months. Hopefully we’ll be able to recommend a few products and put forward some realistic solutions using products with sustainable palm oil or suitable alternatives.
To kick off this series of blogs I recently asked Sarah a few questions about why she decided to try and cut her unsustainable palm oil usage:
What made you think about ditching unsustainable palm oil?
I wouldn’t like it if someone decided to burn my home, demolish the remains and build something there for profit and for the ease of making products. And also [if they] didn’t care if I was sleeping there and all my family and animals died.
What made you aware of these issues?
It was a mix of watching Before the Flood [the 2016 documentary] and looking at eating more clean. But I didn’t realise the corruption involved until watching Before the Flood.
What do you think will be hardest for you to avoid?
Chocolate, ice cream and cosmetic stuff like toothpaste and shampoo.
Did you know you can get sustainable palm oil?
Yes, I’m trying to buy RSPO certified products.
Did you know oil palms produce 4-10 times the amount of oil than other sources per unit of cultivated land?
No. I didn’t know about the amounts [produced].
What are your initial thoughts about being able to find sustainable products or alternatives?
If you eat fresh and don’t eat as many processed foods, then it’s easy (non-processed stuff doesn’t contain palm oil). I check what I use is sustainable (all food products) but it takes more work to find out if something is RSPO certified as it isn’t stated on the packaging, therefore I have to Google it.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how Sarah gets on. She’s not vegetarian but eats veggie most of the time and with palm oil being used as a substitute for animal fats in many products (like in veggie suet) it could prove an extra challenge… good luck Sarah!
If this a challenge you’d like to take, Say No to Palm Oil have a “living deforestation free” challenge, that has some great suggestions for DIY products and suggested brands (although many of these are not available worldwide). Palm Oil Free provide a list of UK based retailers who use palm oil alternatives. Act for Wildlife provides a downloadable list of products that contain 100% RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.