The Palm Oil Debate: What You Need to Know

Posted under  Better Planet, Food & Health, Nature's Path on
Palm oil, organic or not, has become one of the most hotly contested ingredients widely available today. You can find palm oil or palm oil derivatives in your pantry, freezer and fridges, in your cosmetics and cleaning supplies - sometimes even in your fuel! So why has it has become so common place? It is impossible to deny that palm oil has become a global staple for many different countries and diets. In fact, in 2015 it surpassed all other oils produced globally, where over 30 per cent of all the oils and fats produced globally were palm oil.

The good

As a company committed to leaving the earth better then we found it, we don’t start using anything in our products without doing research first. Part of that research is understanding what an ingredient can be best used for. In the case of palm oil, it is the swiss army knife of ingredients. In truth, the oil’s “good” attributes mostly come from comparing it to the other options available. It can be used as a liquid or a solid fat at room temperature. This means it is a great vegan substitute for butter or lard that contains no trans fatty acids. It has a very mild flavor, is smooth and creamy, and has natural preservatives that help keep it shelf stable. This makes it a very popular product for food companies to use when developing new recipes. On top of that, like coconuts, palm is harvested year around. This means it can provide a steady income for smaller farmers and small landowners, which is a key reason for the growth of palm farmers around the world in many developing nations. It also makes it affordable, available, and easier to source from organic producers. Raw palm oil fruit can be easily separated (or fractioned) between liquid at room temperature and solid at room temperature fats. That means less energy is needed, and chemical processes can be avoided, in processing the oil into usable products. Again, this is great for an organic company. This is in addition to palm having a vastly smaller footprint than other vegetable oils. If you compare it to its biggest competitor soy oil:
  • Palm oil is incredibly productive, generating on average 3.6 tons of oil per hectare, which is more than 10x the productivity of soy.
  • It does this using (on average) roughly 10 per cent the soil inputs (fertilizer/compost) that soy requires to produce the same volume of oil.
  • Overall, Soy requires 6x the gigajoules of energy that palm requires to produce 1 tons of oil.
What this means is that if you replace the current volume of palm oil with either soy or canola oil, you would increase the land cleared, increase the energy needed and in general have a larger global impact. The truth is, no one has found a sustainable alternative to palm oil. Yet. With all this in mind, palm oil seems like an almost perfect product! Can be solid or liquid, shelf stable, no trans fats, more productive for famers, uses less energy, and easier to process. What could be wrong with that! It turns out, quite a bit.

The bad – health of people and health of the planet

It is important to remember; Palm oil is still a saturated fat. In terms of its use as a food product, it is largely found in highly processed goods and fried foods. As a replacement for butter or lard or hydrogenated vegetable oils (palm oil sterin) or as a liquid vegetable oil replacement (palm oil oleic) replacing soy or canola oil, palm oil is incredibly useful. That doesn’t mean that it stops having all the other health risks associated with saturated fats. Everything in moderation is key! The growth in palm oil is also increasingly being driven by large scale plantations. Instead of a healthy income for many small scale family farmers, palm oil plantations can have the effect of driving smaller farmers out of the market, pushing rural communities out, increasing deforestation of key tropical habitats, and reducing biodiversity. A major driver is the speed at which all of this is happening. Palm oil demand has grown so quickly that the speed that new land is cleared and planted is outpacing the sincere efforts of many farmers to develop sustainable growing and sourcing methods for palm oil. The loss of tropical ecosystems is not trivial. The impact of the loss of rainforest is felt in local water supply, fisheries, ecotourism, flood prevention, fire prevention, other agricultural products, and biodiversity to name a few. Determining the value of a rainforest is difficult, but taking all these issue into consideration, an estimate was made that one hectare of rainforest provides $128 per hectare per year, while one hector of deforested land for palm oil returns $91. (Source: Economic valuation of the Leuser National Park on Sumatra, Indonesia, Pieter JH van Beukering, Herman SJ Cesar, Marco A Janssen) . The problem is that in the case of a rainforest, the benefits are small individually because they are shared so widely. While for palm oil that relatively smaller benefit is concentrated in the hands of a few. There are many groups trying to address these issues. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was developed by WWF along with industry and government partners in 2001 specifically to address many of the issues around deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.

The ugly

The more alarming aspect of the massive growth of palm oil is the incredible damage being done to endangered species and endangered habitats. Specifically, the loss of habitat and increase pressure on orangutans due to palm oil plantations cannot be ignored. (Read more here) As palm production has soared, so has conflict between humans and wildlife. The habitats that are being destroyed are filled with rare and endangered species like Orangutans, tigers, and elephants. In many cases, these animals are already squeezed into the last holdouts of rapidly dwindling habitats. The demand for palm is also driving illegal palm oil harvest from inside national parks and protected areas, putting further pressure on wildlife in their few remaining safe spaces. Once gone, these species and these habitats do not return. This is the issue that causes some of the most heated debate about palm oil. On one hand, palm oil has many wonderful attributes. It is a huge source of revenue for farmers, bringing families and regions out of poverty. On the other hand, we are pushing a species to the brink of extinction because of our insatiable demand for inexpensive fat.

So what can you do?

Option 1: Stop buying palm oil.
That is one option. However, will that stop the growth? By far, the Asian and south east Asian market is the biggest demand for palm oil, where it is the most common cooking oil. Unlike the cocoa and rubber tree industry, palm oil is a product that is both grown in the tropics, and consumed there. Unlike cocoa, which is famously produced in some countries where many people have not only never eaten chocolate, they have never seen it. The question to ask is - is it better to remove yourself from the problem completely, or to support people who are trying to fix it?
Option 2: Don’t buy palm oil from countries where orangutans live
That is another option. Palm oil is grown in Africa, Asia and South America. 85 per cent is exported from Indonesia and Malaysia, places were orangutans live. If you buy from somewhere else you avoid the problem. However, you only avoid one problem, not the others around deforestation and land use.
Option 3: Only buy certified organic, and certified sustainable palm oil

That is the approach that Nature’s Path has taken. Approximately 16 per cent of current supply of palm is grown under a Sustainable Palm Oil system (RSPO). We aim for the highest standard, Identify Preserved RSPO certified palm oil. We have gone beyond just buying certified. We have visited where our palm is grown, and only buy palm grown in South America (and never from Indonesia or Malaysia). We have directly identified the suppliers that share our values, and are actively trying to show that palm oil can be farmed in a sustainable way that can leave the earth better. As a vegetarian, organic company, palm oil does have some unique uses. We only support suppliers that share our values, and in the case of palm oil we worked hard to identify a supplier that was a leader in the industry. However, we don’t use palm oil widely. It makes us a very small fish in a very massive ocean. We are keenly aware that the palm oil industry must do better. We are supporting those who are working hard to do just that, actively researching sustainable production, and putting best practices into place. We believe that is the best way that we can make a difference in the industry.


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About The Author

Nature's Path is committed to making only organic food products since 1985, and that’s something that will never change. As organic pioneers, Nature’s Path believes that every time you choose organic, you cast a vote for a better food system and a more sustainable future for us all.

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