Updated: Jan 12, 2019
When I was studying environmental conservation I also lead the research for the Soil Association (UK) into the palm oil industry and primary habitat destruction (2009); I collated the information and produced an overview diagram of the sad destruction:
Palm Oil and the Agribusiness
Palm oil here in the UK has been in the news again, a frozen-foods retailer that does not include palm oil in it's products used a short animation made by Greenpeace for their Christmas advert which includes a poetic voice over by the actress Emma Thompson. There was controversy because the animation was deemed too 'political' or perhaps better said too important for the UK's food manufacturers, but what devastation does that oil agribusiness create?
An area approximately the size of 2 football pitches is torn down every minute in Indonesia’s rainforest, palm oil is primarily driving this destruction and every day we lose 25 Orangutans, the same number hanging onto this advent calendar which I made for Brighton And Hove Artists Open Houses:
Rainforests are known as biodiversity hotspots and are therefore vital for regulating the Earth’s climate and sadly the resultant drying out of the peat soils that often underlie the tropical forest exacerbates climate change.
Palm oil or palmitic acid (fatty acid) is a very useful ingredient in the food and household goods industrial processing system, per acre it is also a very high yielding oil and therefore incredibly profitable, a dream oil for Agribusiness. Palm oil is also a highly saturated fat; too much is certainly not healthy for the heart.
It is so important to the UK food processing industry that DEFRA mapped palm oil imports in 2012 to ensure the resilience for the UK food manufacturers and industrial applications. The RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) was meant to hold large producers to account by ensuring sustainable agricultural methods in palm oil plantations – this body has not been able to do this successfully. Big labels promised to clean up their act but Greenpeace eventually found that promise to be a sham.
So what can we do?
Check the label! Please read the small print and see under vegetable oils if palm oil or palm kernel is listed, you will find it in the following range of items:
Bread, biscuits (including shortbread which is meant to be made of butter), scones, quiches, sausage rolls, cakes – even the Christmas varieties, mincemeat, Christmas puddings, ready meals, noodles mixes, curries, chocolate bars, chocolate gift packs, chocolate and peanut butters, sweet and savoury sauces, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, washing powder, vegetable spreads and even vegan cheese. There are many more items that could be listed!
How can we do our little bit?
Bake and cook at home when you can from basic ingredients
Try and buy organic and locally
Support local producers who can tell you where they source their ingredients
Or support larger chain-stores that are also palm oil conscientious
If all of us shifted our shopping habits as best we can the large palm oil producers and the food industry would eventually take notice.
Helpful information and references:
The animation about palm oil by Greenpeace for Iceland Foods:
Latest research casts doubt on the effectiveness of of the RSPO certification scheme as it is not achieving real improvements in the sustainability of palm oil production 'Evaluating the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering multiple sustainability objectives':
And 'certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates' from the report 'Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia':
Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable, report by authors from the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University and the Biological Institute, Tomsk State University (16th October 2018):
Latest published report from the World Health Organisation WHO on the palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases published January 8th 2019, excerpt from the abstract:
"We highlight the industry’s mutually profitable relationship with the processed food industry and its impact on human and planetary health, including detrimental cultivation practices that are linked to respiratory illnesses, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and pollution. This analysis illustrates many parallels to the contested nature of practices adopted by the alcohol and tobacco industries."
From the same report page 9:
"The relationship between the palm oil and processed food industries, and the tactics they employ, resembles practices adopted by the tobacco and alcohol industries. However, the palm oil industry receives comparatively little scrutiny."
Greenpeace's report in 2017 'How the palm oil industry is still cooking the climate':