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Palm Oil Lowdown

So you probably have a lot of questions about Palm Oil, and what it has to do with you? So did I! I did some research in order to better understand what I would be fighting against, and I would like to share with you what I learnt, so we can all become better informed human beings together!

So what is Palm Oil, anyway?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of oil palm (seems simple enough). You can also get palm kernel oil, which is derived from the seed of the oil palm. There are two main species of oil palm tree: the African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis), native to West Africa, and the American Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera), native to Central and South America. Being tropical, these oil palms thrive in areas like Malaysia and Indonesia, where most of the Palm Oil plantations are grown. We use palm oil by the bucket load because it is 10 times more productive per hectare than other oil crops, such as soybean or sunflower, and even though it is high in saturated fat, unlike butter or other animal fats palm oil does not contain bad trans-fats.

Where does it come from?

Oil palm trees grow in the tropics and although originally native to West Africa and South America, they have been introduced to South-East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Malaysia and Indonesia now produce 85% of the world’s palm oil.

What kind of products use palm oil?

Palm oil is found in about 50% of supermarket products, in mostly prepackaged goods. They can range from breads to potato chips to ice cream to shampoo. And of course my beloved Mint Slice. For full lists of products using the bad kind of palm oil, click here.

But why is this Palm Oil causing such a fuss? Shouldn’t we be focusing on other things, like child labour and animal testing and what’s going to happen in the next episode of Game of Thrones?

Well, yes, we should be worrying about those things too, but I would also definitely consider Palm Oil consumption as that calibre of issue. Again, I shall refer to the World Wildlife Fund to spell out some scary truths.

Palm oil only grows in the tropics, where, if cultivated in an unsustainable way, it can have negative impacts on people and the environment. These include indiscriminate forest clearing, habitat loss for threatened andendangered species, poor air quality from burning forests and peatlands, and threats to the rights and interests of local communities. A report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledges that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. Of even greater concern is the fact that demand for palm oil is predicted to increase, and forests constitute most of the remaining suitable areas for plantations.

To put this in perspective in terms of native species endangerment, 1,000 orangutans die every year as a result of land clearing, AND there are already fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers living in the world to date. And we’re going to continue to destroy their habitat so we can have our rice crackers and creamy shampoos.

In terms of social side effects, the tussle for land to start new palm oil plantations has led to a lot of displacement of communities  that have been farming or living in these areas, as well as the issues that come with violation the rights of workers, including those to do with pay, safe working conditions or the freedom to unionize.

And THEN there’s also the issue of all that pesky carbon dioxide, and what’s going to happen when we have no trees left to turn it into oxygen.

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to feel like a bit of an asshole.

This is starting to get a little scary. But what can I do to help? I’m just one Australian girl with an unhealthy attachment to a particular chocolate biscuit.

Oh you too? We should get together some time and compare notes!

To answer this question, I decided to consult the website of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil.

In response to the urgent and pressing global call for sustainably produced palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 with the objective of:
promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders
.

This is the main statement you see when clicking onto their homepage, which in English means that not only are they advocates for switching to sustainable palm oil, they are key in deciding what can be classified as a sustainable palm oil plantation. It’s a non for profit organisation, and they have a number of stakeholders, including palm oil producers, distributors, retailers, goods manufacturers, and environmental organisations, like Oxfam and WWF, so that the debates are balanced and the outcomes well rounded.

I couldn’t bring myself to go through what all the different chapters and by-laws because my brain was not made for understanding that kind of thing, but I was particularly struck by their vision, which reads

RSPO will transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm

And their mission statements

To advance the production, procurement, finance and use of sustainable palm oil products;

•   To develop, implement, verify, assure and periodically review credible global standards for the entire supply chain of sustainable palm oil;
•   To monitor and evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of the uptake of sustainable palm oil in the market;
 •   To engage and commit all stakeholders throughout the supply chain, including governments and consumers.

Now this does make sense to me. The idea that we, the consumers, can force a shift in the marketplace towards sustainable palm oil, simply by changing our buying habits, is a very powerful one.

However, this is not as easy as it sounds; humans are creatures of habit, and what we buy at the supermarket can be a collection of deeply ingrained habits, and as hard to break as smoking, buying shoes, or getting a double cheeseburger from McDonalds at four in the morning after Friday night drinks. We know it’s wrong but we do it anyway.

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all the global issues out there. I know I was, and I still am. But if you really want to make a difference, I think the best way is to pick one you feel particularly strongly about, and find out as much as you can about it, and what you can do to help. Organisations, like Zoos Victoria and WWF are always throwing up ideas on how you can help in small, every day ways that often have big impacts; you won’t sign a petition against commercial whaling, only to find that you’ve also put your hand up to man the next voyage of the ‘Sea Shepard.’ And a lot of them are based on changing our consumer habits.

The only problem is that Palm Oil isn’t properly labelled in the ingredients listings, in fact it is often labelled simply as Vegetable Oil. This is very confusing, and makes it difficult for consumers to know which products actually have palm oil and which don’t.

What’s Sustainable palm oil though? Why should we choose it instead of regular palm oil?
The RSPO have 8 principles and 39 criteria to determine this certification. These are in place in order to protect the rights of previous land owners, local communities, plantation workers, small farmers, as well as ensuring that no new primary forests are cleared, or areas of high conservation value have been cleared since November 2005! I had a peruse of the criteria document (It’s 52 pages long!) and found it very informative; not only do they have criteria in relation to forest use and workers rights, there is also criteria regarding soil fertility, acgrochemicals and long term economic and financial viability.

But if it’s so bad, why shouldn’t we be trying to get rid of it all together?

I don’t think so. It has a long shelf life, no trans fats, and it’s super productive.  If only it weren’t harvested at the cost of about 300 football fields worth of rainforest every hour.

It makes sense to me to keep using Palm Oil, not only for the above reasons, but also because it provides a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. A report by the World Bank and Asia Development Bank stated that the Malaysian palm oil industry currently employs 570,000 people and produces export earnings of more than RM68 billion (about $22 billion Australian dollars) per year (WWF)
You can’t tell an industry like that just to stop. Not even if you use your pleases and thankyous. But what we can do is ask them to stop making palm oil at the expense of biodiversity, sustainability and thousands of endangered animal’s lives.  Deforestation doesn’t need to be happening, not when there’s about 300–700 million hectares of abandoned land globally could potentially be used for oil palm plantations, 20 million hectares of it in Indonesia alone.

To cover all my bases, I consulted the RSPO Supply Chain FAQ with a couple of questions that were left unanswered in my research

Does it cost farmers a fair bit of money to get their plantations up to the industry standards in order to be classified as sustainable?

If so, will they be compensated for this, either by an organisation, or by being able to charge a higher price for the product?

I wanted to know this, because when it comes down to the wire, the people who are actually farming the palm oil have more immediate concerns,  that are things I don’t even need to think about (for an excellent analysis of first world problems, please visit this blog by Amanda Palmer as background reading. It is not specifically relevant to this issue, but it is relevant to life).  And these are things that need to be considered when building long term solutions.

This is the RSPO’s answer to a simpler question “Will Sustainable Palm Oil be more expensive?”:

Generally speaking, markets will determine the price of sustainable palm oil. A price premium on sustainable oil can be expected when demand exceeds supply. Also, palm oil plantations, mills and/or traders will likely try to recover expenses such as those for auditing and certification, segregation, administration and RSPO membership.

Small fees are added by organizations running the system, including the RSPO. In the end, sustainable palm oil will probably be a bit more expensive than conventional palm oil. Paying a little price premium is an effective way for consumers to encourage large plantations and smallholders to produce palm oil sustainably.

So we might have to pay a little more for sustainable palm oil, in order to cover the costs of getting the plantations up to scratch. Well, if paying a dollar extra for my Mint Slice means that we get to keep Tigers and Orangutan’s from becoming completely extinct, I’m ok with that! Are you?

Ok cool. I think I’m ready to do this. So what now?

Well, I’ve made myself, and you lovely people, a nifty little resources page. There are lots of websites that go a little more in depth into the issues surrounding palm oil production, and lists of products that have palm oil in them, are palm oil free, and are using or in the process of switching to Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

If you’re not ready to jump into this with me, or think that it’s a little too confusing, you can write a letter to your Member of Parliament, asking them to support the Food Standard Amendment (Truth in Labelling – Palm Oil) Bill, which is currently before parliament, and if passed will force companies to start labelling palm oil in their ingredients listings. None of this shady ‘vegetable oil’ business, we can actually have a clear choice, and a chance to drive consumer demand! Hooray! Unfortunately, the bill did not make the cut in 2011, but with your help, the pressure that builds behind this campaign could push it through in 2012!
Or you could just email the companies of your favourite foods, asking them if they use sustainable palm oil, and if not, would they consider doing so in the future? I’m going to be doing both of these things after my thirty day no palm oil stint.

Sources

The World Wildlife Fund: http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/forests/palm_oil/
The Round Table For Sustainable Palm Oil: http://www.rsop.org
The Truth In Labelling: http://www.truthinlabelling.com.au
Zoos Victoria: http://www.zoo.org.au

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