Palm Oil is NOT Bad for The Environment - The Way Human Grow It is
Going palm-oil-free may not reduce deforestation or palm oil demand
Have you ever thought about what impact you make by refusing palm oil? One obvious reason to avoid palm oil in food is to reduce saturated fat. Consuming too much saturated fat can cause cholesterol to build up.
In cosmetic and personal care products though, palm oil has a bad image because it is associated with deforestation, human rights violations, and other issues. Before putting “bad” label on palm oil, or refusing palm oil totally (if you can), understand why palm-oil-free movement does not solve the issues.
Palm oil facts
The fact is finding palm-oil-free products is very difficult.
Palm oil is the most versatile and widely used vegetable oil in the world. Palm oil is stable, it has natural preservative qualities and is currently very cheap. This is why it is in 50% of all kinds of products we consume every day, from food to chemicals. While each of us consume about 8 Kg of palm oil every year, Oil palm is world’s most hated crop.
You won’t be able to spot “Palm Oil” easily unless you know all 500+ palm oil derivatives. Here are some names:
Vegetable oil, Vegetable fat, Palm kernel, Palm kernel oil, Palm fruit oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic acid, Elaeis guineensis, Palmitic acid, Palm stearine, Palmitoyl oxostearamide, Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, Sodium laureth sulfate, Sodium lauryl sulfate, Sodium kernelate, Sodium palm kernelate, Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate, Hydrogenated palm glycerides, Ethyl palmitate, Octyl palmitate, Palmityl alcohol… and more
Palm oil is also used as a biodiesel feedstock, although research suggests that making biodiesel from palms grown on newly cleared land increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Palm Oil in cosmetics and personal care products
The fact is 70% of cosmetic ingredients are derived from palm (kernel) oil in more than 180 different names, and the demand continues to grow.
Because palm oil has been so inexpensive and consumers demand plant based ingredients, manufacturers started to replace petroleum-based chemicals in soaps and cosmetics. Palm oil is a superior ingredient for making good quality beauty products. It has no scent or taste, produces a creamy texture, keeps products moist, binds ingredients together and extends shelf life.
Palm oil itself is beneficial to the skin as well. By using topically, it enhances skin elasticity, lightens dark spots and blemishes, and makes skin look more supple. It has anti-bacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties to help hydrate the skin. Palm oil can also hold protein on the hair together to promote healthier hair.
Because processed palm oil is used as an essential base for ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products, you will not see “palm oil” in the ingredient list. This means the product may still contain palm oil even there is no palm oil on the label.
Usually, palm-oil-free products use coconut oil or other plant oils instead. It is possible to make good quality products without palm oil, but we need to understand what it means to cut palm oil usage completely. (We will discuss it in detail later in this article.)
How Palm Oil became bad for the environment?
The fact is oil palm is just a plant. It is how and where human grow it that causes the problem.
The oil palm tree was introduced from South Africa in 1875 into South Asia. The demand spiked in 1990th when negative health impact of trans fat was found and companies started replacing to palm oil. The rapid expansion of plantation has led the destruction of huge area of rain forest. Companies kept costs down by recruiting poorly paid and often undocumented migrant workers, and reproducing some of the abusive practices of the colonial era.
Currently, 85% of world palm oil production is happening in Malaysia and Indonesia where the richest rain forests in the world are. These forests are home to the many wild animals, birds, insects, and plants. Other 15% production is in Latin America (Amazon), Africa, and China.
Burning and clearing rain forests has caused the resident species lost their home, exacerbated climate change, and polluted environment.
Why should we NOT ban Palm Oil?
Boycotting palm oil is not the solution.
Oil palm is so efficient per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils.
By seeing the environmental damage done, your first instinct may be to cut off all palm oil use completely. But replacing palm oil to other plant oils requires 10 times more land to grow. Oil palm produces oil all year round and it can happily grow in soils that other plants cannot grow. Shifting away from palm oil will push deforestation even further to catch up the demand.
There are 4.5 millions of growers and producers who relies on the palm oil industry to maintain their life. Stopping the production of palm oil would create significant problems for these people.
Also, decreasing demand for palm oil will force producer to lower the price, which will attract buyers who have less interest in sustainability. This could reduce the incentive to produce environmentally sustainable palm oil.
Green Diesel, biodiesel, is an example of the solution from palm oil producers to keep the demands while EU is phasing out palm oil biofuels because of concerns over deforestation. As mentioned earlier, clearing land to grow palm to produce biofuels results in more greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them.
Sustainable Palm Oil
About 20% of palm oil produced in 2020 received certification from the RSPO.
RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil for people, the planet and prosperity. RSPO sets environmental and social criteria to palm oil industry to minimize negative impacts.
RSPO certified products are more expensive than conventional products, but until we commit to change, vulnerable communities and ecosystems will continue to bear the costs of cheap palm oil.
Although seeing the damages from palm oil mass production is heartbreaking, boycotting palm oil is very difficult and not the best solution. Processed palm oil is in so many products in many different name, and it is very hard to find palm-oil-free products.
Palm oil is the most versatile and widely used plant oil in the world and the demand continues to grow. Shifting to other plant oils requires 10 times more land to grow the plant that could cause further deforestation. Decreasing demand will also create other problems in a long term. Rather, we should help producers to operate in more ethical and sustainable ways by investing on sustainable palm oil. Oil Palm is just a plant, a very good plant. The problem is about where and how human grow it.
As we are getting more aware of sustainability, more variety of eco-friendly products are made. Many products use bamboo instead of plastic as bamboo is a natural material and is a fast-growing sustainable plant. However, there is a raising concern about deforestation to grow more bamboo. Changing natural forest to single plant plantation has always caused massive environmental damages. Whether it is wheat, corn, or palm tree, monoculture farming will create issues such as pest infestations (use more pesticides), soil degradation/erosion, fertility loss (use more fertilizers), moisture loss (more water usage), and biodiversity loss (less production).
Before jumping onto a new solution, it is important to look at the entire life cycle and impact on the environment for a long term.
A makeover for the world’s most hated crop https://www.nature.com/articles/543306a
The making and maintaining of cheap and disciplined labor on oil palm plantations in Indonesia https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-68944-5_9
Palm oil and biodiversity https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/palm-oil-and-biodiversity
Monoculture farming in agriculture industry https://eos.com/blog/monoculture-farming/
Success with C-100, Pertamina is ready to produce green energy https://pertamina.com/en/news-room/news-release/success-with-d-100-pertamina-is-ready-to-produce-green-energy