In this article, we get deeper on the facts and sustainability of palm oil, why it is bad, the buzz around deforestation and consequences for people and other species such as the orangutan.
Whether used for making food, fuel, or cosmetics, palm oil has gained popularity due to the variety of uses it can have, becoming a must in our daily lives.
This product is not new, and it’s being used in commercial exchanges for at least five thousand years. The demand exploded during the second English industrial revolution to produce candles and lubricate factory machines.
Way less known is the potential bad consequences for the environment and our health caused by the use of palm oil.
Despite numerous studies on the topic, there are many misleading “facts”, and that’s why it is so important to develop an informed consumption of these kinds of products.
WHAT IS PALM OIL USED FOR?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, extracted mainly from the red pulp of the oil palm fruit, a palm tree originated and native from the west and southwest of Africa.
After the liquid and solid parts are grounded and separated, the oil is filtered and bleached, resulting in fatty acids that are used in the production of soaps, shampoos, and detergents.
Often used as cooking oil in Africa, Southeast Asia, and some regions of Brazil, it is an ingredient of the most varied processed food products, such as ice cream, pizza, mayonnaise, peanut butter, or the famous Nutella. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims that half of the products packaged in supermarkets right now contain palm oil.
In 2015, each person consumed an average of 7.7 kg of palm oil, according to Gro Intelligence.
The large commercial use can be explained by the low cost of sale. According to indexmundi, the monthly price for each ton of palm oil is around 470 euros (47 cents per kilo).
In 2018, half of the importation of palm oil to Europe was used to produce biodiesel. Other crops used for this mean are rapeseed, soy, sunflower, used cooking oil (UCO), and tallow oils.
PALM OIL SUSTAINABILITY.
On average, a palm oil crop produces 4 tons of oil per hectare, (almost 5 times more than rapeseed oil, 8 than sunflower oil and 10 than soybean oil), and is considered one of the fastest-growing cultures worldwide
Its saturation rate and rheological properties, similar to the oil ones, combined with its low cost, make palm oil a good alternative. Associated with these characteristics, the product has a sustainability certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Palm oil biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic.
But it’s not all good news. It’s a fact that the growing demand for biodegradable materials from renewable sources has led to the massive expansion and consumption of palm oil, which has had serious consequences, including deforestation as the main one.
Palm oil is sustainable in its use, but is its production environmentally responsible?
Because it is a product that affects several industries, the land used to produce is commonly distributed between bioenergy production, food, nature conservation, and climate protection.
In Southeast Asia alone, millions of hectares of monoculture plantations of palm oil have been implemented, destroying large plots of tropical forest (deforestation) and habitats of species such as the pygmy elephant and the orangutan.
The Sumatra Orangutan, one of the only three species of orangutans in the world, is in critical danger.
Gunter Pauli, a member of the Club of Rome, founder of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI) and speaker at Planetiers World Gathering, realized this problem when he visited Indonesia in the 1990s to monitor his “sustainable” business of biodegradable soap factories.
“I was very proud of cleaning up the rivers in Europe – until I visited Indonesia and realized that my actions led to the destruction of the habitat of the orangutan. (…) I could not reconcile being ‘Green’ in Europe with being destructive in Indonesia ”, Gunter Pauli.
Let’s not even talk about the bad water footprint of palm oil – it takes more than 1000 liters of water for one of palm oil produced. The result is a highly polluted tributary, in which only 10% of the biomass is converted into edible oil – 90% of the production is just wasted.
BAD HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF PALM OIL
In several countries, vegetable oils are replacing animal fats for financial and health reasons.
The link between high levels of triglycerides in the blood and cardiovascular disease has been already proven. Although palm oil harvested from palm contains 50% of saturated fatty acids, it also contains high levels of antioxidants, vitamin E, and beta-carotene (which give it its natural reddish color).
However, in a processed state, the oxidized palm oil can be toxic to the kidneys, lungs, liver, and heart, and is unsuitable for people with high cholesterol and cardiovascular problems.
A study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has linked palmitic acid (a major component of palm oil) to the spread of cancer cells in animals, but there is still insufficient research on the recommended dose or to conclude the risk of cancer.
Unrefined palm oil must be purchased from specialized stores, such as organic supermarkets. As long as it is consumed responsibly and combined with a healthy diet, it does not appear to pose additional risks for cardiovascular disease.
WHO BENEFITS FROM THE PRODUCTION OF PALMA OIL?
It’s not needed extensive research to understand why palm oil is an important “sustainable” source for the food and biofuel industries.
Even for companies with a sustainability certificate, as it’s the case of Unilever, sometimes productivity and profit speak louder, preventing the development of a truly sustainable alternative to palm oil.
ARE THERE SOLUTIONS FOR THE PROBLEM?
Since palm and soy oils represent more than 50% of the world production of vegetable oils, any decrease has a direct impact on the cost of several other products.
During the 1992 Rio Summit, the Malaysian Government promised to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations, preserving half of the national forest. Several proposed goals have long been forgotten.
In 2018, the European Parliament voted to abolish the use of oil as biofuel by 2020. The Malaysian government says it is willing to do anything to protect the sector, valued at billions of dollars, saying it has lifted millions of people out of poverty.
Among the several initiatives to be developed two important ones are the creation of detergents from citrus peels and the management of palm oil waste to allow the recycling process of water used.
While the incorporation of biodiesel into fuels is more sustainable, the impact on forests and the consumption of resources such as water and soil in other regions indicates that this solution is not an alternative.
Likewise, the incorporation of palm oil in processed products does not constitute a healthier or more sustainable alternative.
It is recommended to adopt a diet rich in local fruits and seasonal vegetables, which allow us to achieve both excellent health benefits and a smaller ecological footprint.
Thus, in our daily lives, it is up to us to reject its incorporation into food products and to seek more efficient ways of transport, such as public transport, which have less fuel consumption per person, demanding less fuel production and keeping sustainability as a priority
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