Will the world’s palm oil problem ever be solved?

And why ‘palm oil free’ is nothing to brag about.

Say hello to Elaeis guineensis, aka the fruit of the palm oil tree — one of the most yielding and destructive crops in the world.

And we, as a human race, are addicted to the stuff.

3 billion people use palm oil products every single day — often without even realising it.

Found in nearly 50% of packaged products: crisps, chocolate, pizza, and even our daily staple food — bread. And not only in these common foods, but palm oil has also found its way into vegan cheese. Which sucks if you’ve gone ‘plant-based’ for sustainability reasons.

It’s not just the food industry that’s fallen victim to its production, the oil resides in shampoos, deodorant, toothpaste and animal feed.

We’re hooked.

In recent years we’ve wised up to its adverse impact (more on that later), but this villain in disguise has become so ingrained into our daily lives, it would be near impossible to give it up completely.

Why? Because it’s so versatile.

It can handle heat without spoiling, and blends well with other oils. It’s semi-solid at room temperature which is useful for spreads, and it’s odourless and colourless so won’t interfere with food products. Oh, and products benefit from a longer shelf life as it’s resistant to oxidation.

With billions of people relying on its production, palm oil is here to stay.

What’s the solution?

Just because we can’t break up with palm oil, there are steps we can take to monitor its production.

After all, the livelihoods of hundreds of smallhold farmers rely on producing it. Malaysia and Indonesia supply 85% of global palm oil, and it is regarded as a life-line for these emerging economies.

Like other products in mass supply, fair trade standards are in place.

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit organisation that develops and implements global standards for sustainable palm oil. They have set out “environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).”

When properly applied, the criteria can help minimise the negative impact of cultivating palm oil. With 4,000 members worldwide, organisations in the RSPO are committed to the production, sourcing and use of certified oil.

On the face of things, the RSPO is doing great work. Widely viewed by environmentalists as a robust certification system, it seems that manufacturers are more inclined to use RSPO-certified oil.

They’ve tightened up their rules after scrutiny in recent years, but may still have a way to go before some critics have total faith in their certifications.

However, where the RSPO are excelling is in education. ‘Teaching’ might be the key to sustainable palm oil. From smallhold farmers to CEO’s of multinational companies, all stakeholders will have a harsh lesson to learn if they want to continue their palm oil practices.

This will need to happen throughout the whole supply chain. Transparency is another vital step in taming this beast, which is easier said than done, if you’re in charge of a large company with a multitude of brands under your umbrella.

Using a scorecard system, WWF displays which companies are keeping their palm oil promises and which are not. A quick search for cosmetics giant, L’Oreal, shows they are leading the way and setting a good example for other brands.

The problem with monitoring long supply chains is the complexity of them, and real activity can get lost in translation.

That could be about to change. Trase is on a mission to make supply chain information available to the public by 2021. They’re able to piece together the links between consumer countries via trading companies to the places of production in remarkable detail.

Don’t be fooled by replacements

What about substitutes?

Sure, palm oil is credited for its versatility. But soybeans and coconuts also offer the same calibre of oil. Where they fall short is to do with the efficiency that palm fruit provides. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on just 10% of the land.

Meaning the land required to harvest a similar quantity of oil from substitute sources wouldn’t change the problem, it would merely displace it. And that’s why items that brag about ‘palm oil’ free can be equally (if not more) damaging to the environment than if they’re using alternative ingredients.

The problem with palm oil

For a start, its production is a major driver of deforestation, particularly in Indonesia. Since 2000, palm oil plantations accounted for 47% of total deforestation in Borneo, and destroyed the habitat of millions of animals, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction.

Couple that with wiping-out the carbon-rich peat soils for new plantations through a slash and burn agriculture, and it’s easy to understand how production is throwing masses of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Nearly half of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cutting or burning forest, including those on carbon-rich peatlands.

It’s clear that we rely on the production of palm oil, and alternatives simply can’t match our demand.

However, though the problem might not be solvable in the short term, it can hopefully be better contained through clearer supply chains, transparency and education.

Just because we can’t break up with palm oil, there are steps we can take to monitor its production.

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