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say no to deforestation and habitat degradation: the power is in your palm!

Photo by: Hans Eiskone 

Author: Josephine Agueci 

You’ve probably heard about the dangers of the dreaded palm oil before. It’s everywhere! bare market blogger Josephine breaks down the complicated economic, social and environmental factors that shape the industry and what steps you can take to influence change.

It’s likely an ingredient in your cereal, your sandwich, your pizza, your chocolate, and your instant noodles. It’s in the products you use to wash your hair, your body, your teeth, and your clothes. It’s GMO-free, natural, and can be used as an energy source to keep your home livable and your car drivable. Its production is largely associated with deforestation, it can destroy habitats, its expansion is pushing a variety of species to extinction, and it often violates various human rights. It’s palm oil!

The diagram below demonstrates just how much palm oil has become integrated into almost every aspect of our daily lives, from morning til’ night.

Image source: Philadelphia Zoo 

You’ve probably heard of palm oil before. It’s a vegetable oil produced from the palm fruit, which is grown on the African oil palm tree in humid, tropical locations throughout Africa, Asia, and America. Due to its accessibility and relatively low production costs, palm oil represents 35% of the vegetable oil produced in the world and is an ingredient in approximately 50% of food and household products sold in many developed countries, including Canada!

Okay, so we’ve established that palm oil is used a lot. It’s basically the oily equivalent of “eh” in the Canadian lexicon. Without even thinking about it, we’ve used it 500 times before breakfast (Nutella anyone?). Unlike “eh”, however, palm oil’s excessive use is linked to a bunch of not-so-funny issues. Such as…

 

Photo by Tucker Good

deforestation

It has been estimated that rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of 300 football fields of land every hour (!!) in order to provide adequate space for palm oil plantations so that demand can be met. Even more concerning is the fact that much of the rainforest land that is considered most suitable to become palm oil plantations are peat bogs. Peat bogs store high quantities of carbon in the form of organic plant and animal material, meaning that burning these rainforests contributes significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it would if other locations were utilized.

habitat degradation

The orangutan has lost approximately 90% of its habitat in only 20 years and is in great danger of extinction, primarily due to the development of palm oil plantations. Thousands of other species have found themselves in similarly dire situations due to the development of this industry including tigers, rhinos, leopards, elephants, and bears.

human rights violations

Since the 1960s, indigenous land in Indonesia has been legally and illegally taken over by companies to be used for palm oil plantations. The communities affected are oftentimes forced into becoming labourers of their own land, and the tribes that greatly depend on the rainforest’s resources for survival can be left with nothing.

what should we do?

So, what is the take-home message behind this palm oil industry problem? With all actions there are consequences; similarly, with all purchases there are responsibilities. It is our responsibility as consumers to support industries that are as ethical and environmentally sound as possible. With that being said, it’s not always easy to do so. Did you know that there are dozens of alternative names for palm oil, making it even more difficult to spot on ingredient labels? 

In an ideal world, would we completely eliminate the use of palm oil? Well, that's simply not realistic and could even have some potentially negative impacts...

Much of the world’s population, particularly in the tropics, depends on palm oil production for their livelihood. In fact the industry has helped to lift millions out of poverty! Eliminating the use of this product all at once would have a plethora of negative economic impacts. While we should still try to minimize our use of palm oil, it is important to put our money towards sustainably-produced palm oil to aid in transforming the industry.

bare market is happy to support RSPO-certified palm oil, which is an organization that supports the production and use of sustainable palm oil “for People, Planet, and Prosperity”. Growers can become RSPO-certified if their production aligns with eight main sustainability principles. Currently, over 19% of palm oil producers are RSPO-certified, and that number continues to grow as consumers (like us!) become more educated and conscious of the products we are buying and the companies we are supporting.

 

While it may be easy for consumers to boycott all products containing palm oil after hearing about the issues associated with the industry, there are repercussions to doing so, demonstrating just how complex this issue really is. An important question is: If we replace palm oil with another crop, would we not just be switching the associated problems from one crop to another?

 

Did you know that palm oil is 4-10 times more productive in terms of oil yield than other vegetables? That means it uses much less land than comparable crops. Despite the serious social and environmental issues associated with palm oil, switching to another crop would simply not fix the issues, and could possibly make them worse. What we should really be doing is shifting to more sustainable methods of palm oil production, and the RSPO is helping to set appropriate guidelines for companies to follow to ensure this.

 

Want to learn more? We highly recommend this interview with Inke van der Sluijs from the RSPO on The Eco Well Podcast.

Every little choice and purchase we make counts and has the ability to make a difference. The power to make change is literally in your palm!

 

About the author: Josephine Agueci is a third year student at McMaster University studying Honours Earth and Environmental Sciences with a Minor in Sustainability. She is passionate about environmental education and believes that sustainable living is a never-ending process - there are always new opportunities for growth and improvement! She’s incredibly excited to be involved with bare market and the beautiful community it is creating.


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