The Many Problems with Palm Oil

By: Francesca S

 

There is good news and bad news.

Good news first. Palm oil is one of the most efficient vegetable oils, it is versatile and can replace any other type. It grows in the tropics, so in the region of North Africa, Latin America and countries in Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia. The rising popularity of palm oil has led to the enlargement of current plantation and the creations of new ones. Palm oil’s worldwide demand expected to double by 2050 to 240 million tonnes, given that it is found almost everywhere. This includes food (especially ice cream and margarine), shampoos and detergents, waxes, makeup, and most recently, as a biofuel.

Now this is the bad news. The cultivation of palm oil trees has an enormous and harmful impact on Earth. Large parts of tropical forests have been cut down, biodiversity is decreasing, and forest conversion is the most serious environmental impact it has. This leads to many habitats being destroyed, if not directly to the killing of animals. Orangutans are the most affected, by already being an endangered species; their only suitable habitat is being cut down. Tigers, rhinos and elephants are at risk too. Many workers of the plantation also smuggle the animals and exacerbate the animal trade that is already taking place around the world.  The depletion of biodiversity in tropical regions isn’t the only problem; soil and waters are becoming polluted. The production of palm oil creates a lot of waste, which is either left in the soil or thrown in freshwater streams, thus polluting either way. If land and water pollution weren’t enough, the way the forests are taken down is either by machines that cut down trees collectively or by setting them on fire. The latter creates smoke pollution, damages the worker’s health and increases the amount of CO2, which contributes to the ever-growing problem of climate change. Who would have thought the impact was this immoral?

It is also worth noting that palm oil has its controversies in regards to human health. Palm oil, once processed (so how we eat it), is high in saturated fats (like butter, for instance), which like in other cases it may cause some inflammation that leads to insulin resistance and in worst scenarios, obesity.

Ready for even worse news? Palm oil is present in many processed foods we eat, and famous brands use it quite a lot. Here are just a few names:

  •   Starbucks
  •   Nutella
  •   Nestlè cereals
  •   Kellogg’s pop tarts
  •   Ben & Jerry’s
  •   McDonalds and other fast food companies like Subway, Burger King and KFC
  •   Oreos

All these brands use sustainable palm oil, where the origin is certified, so are the ways the workers are treated and the oil processed, but the ecological impact doesn’t differ.

Despite all these controversies on palm oil, it seems to be the best option of all vegetable oils. The best thing you can do, as a daily consumer of palm oil (half of your fridge’s food probably has palm oil listed as an ingredient), is to be aware of what buying palm oil causes. I can’t ask you to not buy anything from any brands that use palm oil, but maybe, think twice before placing those Oreos in your shopping cart. You might do an orangutan a favour.

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