a lot lot less: bye bye palm oil


If any current government administration was going to do something really spectacular I’d suggest they prohibit palm oil. As one Austrian organic supermarket brand has shouted out in their summer marketing campaign: It is possible to go without. Yet: what does palm oil free mean in daily life?

coconut tree under gray sky

Photo by Oliver Sjöström, Instagram: @ollivves, Website: https://ollivves.com/

If you do not already use organic shower gel, soap and creme and you want to go palm oil free, you can safely bin pretty much all cosmetic products. Even organic soaps are likely to contain palm oil, often “certified pam oil”, but to that later.

The same goes for make-up, domestic cleaning products and the washing liquids of all well-known brands as well as biodiesel. It equally applies to nearly everything edible that come in a packet: frozen pizzas, ready-made pasta, instant soups, crunchy mueslis or spreads such as margarine and – queen of the breakfast table – Nutella. None of them can do it appears without the magic ingredient palm oil, and neither can cookies and chocolate bars by the way. Nothing is sacred.

Evil palm oil?

How can something which is apparently so vital to so many products be bad? What is the problem with the naturally amber coloured fat? It is simple: The palm trees that grow the oil stand in the rainforest. Now, the deforestation of the rainforest has been going on for some time and it is not exactly around the corner, so why should you care?

Ten reasons why you may want to care:

1) Palm oil is usually highly processed and produces different kinds of toxic esters of fatty acid which are known to damage testicles, kidneys and the liver, or are carcinogenic.

2) Due to its high content in saturated fatty acids (nearly 50%) palm oil has a negative effect on blood fat and LDL-cholesterol as well as promoting atherosclerosis and type 2 diabetes.

3) Slash and burn land clearance methods are used in order to gain land for palm plantations. This releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from Indonesian peat swamp forests (which is cleared for plantation), as the soil dries out and the peatland is drained.

4) Palm plantations damage local people’s health through the use of pesticides and the smoke from land clearance.

5) Amnesty International has located systematic abuse and exploitation of the plantation workers, who are not protected in terms of labour laws or health regulations.

6) Small farm peasants and indigenous people are being driven off their land.

7) Amnesty International has located child labour.

8) Palm oil plantations contribute to the extinction of animals especially of endangered orang-utan species, pygmy elephants and the Sumatra tigers.

9) Monocultures leach out the soil and pollute the water through pesticides.

10) Slash and burn land clearance methods destroy the plant kingdom.

Good palm oil?

What is so great about palm oil, that it has found its way into so many products?

1) First of all palm oil has good properties for industrial processing, it adds smoothness to soap, for example.

2) Palm oil is solid at room temperature.

3) Oil palms yield a much higher revenue than other oil-bearing plants. Palm oil holds therefore a third of the global plant oil  market share. It is much cheaper than other plant oils, as producers are in no way liable to pay for the damages they cause.

Conclusion: Palm oil pays off to industry and producers.

What can be done?

If you want to eat less palm oil or at least a more sustainably produced oil, you can buy unrefined palm oil in your local African or organic grocery shop. It is produced in small cooperatives and it is red. And it has a very characteristic taste and smell, which is in no way comparable to the refined odourless market favourite. Obviously the red unrefined oil is also much dearer and unsuitable for industrial processing.

Solution 1: Buying certified palm oil

There is also RSPO-certified palm oil which is used at least in parts by some brands. In 2004 the WWF started talking to stakeholders within the framework of the initiative RSPO, which stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, to create a plan for a more sustainable palm oil.

Another initiative is the Palm Oil Innovators Group (POIG), in which NGOs like Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and the WWF, as well as RSPO-members campaign for tougher production regulations, including social and ecological aspects.

In Germany, Austria and Switzerland the Forum Nachhaltiges Palmöl (FONAP; Forum for sustainable palm oil) strives at supplying the three German speaking markets with certified palm oil. It further aims at expanding and improving  certification systems.

However, the German environmental organisation Rettet den Regenwald (Save the Rainforest) and other NGOs explain that in order to be awarded these certification labels the companies are neither forced to renounce to slash and burn land clearance methods, nor to monocultures, or stick to climate protection measures. The working conditions on these farms are further not necessarily better, not even regarding child labour. According to reports, human right violations are barely penalised and the native inhabitants continue, at least in parts, to be driven off their land. Moreover toxic herbicides that damage the local population continue to be used. Greenpeace is trying to keep an eye on companies and their progress towards a certified palm oil production.

Solution 2: Bye bye palm oil

The total renunciation of palm oil by the industry is not a desirable goal, according to the WWF, because in consequence a greater amount of other oils would have to be produced, which would equally damage resources, animals and the environment. The goal is to reduce all oil production sustainably. This however, would inevitably increase the price of oil. Some companies and brands have already removed palm oil from their products entirely, as for example the Austrian grocery brand Ja natürlich or continue to rid their products of it, like the Italian brand Barilla. 

Many food items, soaps and detergents that have existed for decades have in the past been produced with fats other than palm oil. So it is apparently possible to do so. Yet the major part of the corporations which use a lot of palm oil is not likely to switch to a more expensive option, especially when the cheap version has such excellent processing characteristics. Not unless there is a more profitable replacement.

Hence those who do not want to finance the palm oil industry can not really do so without some personal effort. The only foods which can safely be consumed are natural untreated foods*. When it comes to household cleaners, cosmetic products and other industrially made products, it is best to check the ingredients and avoid ingredients starting with cet-, coco-, or  laur-**, or to refer to a site which lists palm oil free products.

Conclusion palm oil

The production and cultivation of palm oil have a destructive effect on climate, humans,  animals and the environment. For producers and for industrial processing palm oil has predominantly useful properties as well as being cheap, also because those who cause the damages don’t have to pay for them.

Therefore, when we buy products containing palm oil we directly support this industry with our money. By buying everyday products containing palm oil we facilitate the destruction of the rain forest, damage the climate and  harm native people, animals and nature. Stopp using palm oil and start protecting our planet.

* fresh fruit and vegetables, tinned foods (fruit, vegetables, legumen), fermented foods, meat, sausages, fish, eggs, dairy products, grains, cereals, flour, pasta, rice, polenta, legumes, honey, jam, nuts, grain-, nut- and soy drinks, as well as almost all beverages.

** As well as: capr-, cetear-, cetyl-, coc-, glycer-, linol-, myrist-, ole-, and stear-

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