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Palm oil is a silent presence in most of our daily lives. It can be found from bread to ice cream, from toothpaste to chips and from soap to fuel, but do we really know the truth about it? 

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil original of a palm tree named Elaeis guineensis, native from Africa, even though most plantations nowadays are in south-east Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia representing 85% of global production. Due to its characteristics, such as high saturation, oxidation resistance, stability at high temperatures, low cost and versatility, it is widely adopted on a globe scale.  

It can be found in more than a half of packaged products consumed in the US, in 70% of personal care items and it can be used as animal feed, as a biofuel or as cooking oil, and it is estimated that we consume, in a global average, 8kg of palm oil per year, making it the most used and demanded vegetable oil in the world.  

On the one hand, this crop is the most efficient when compared with others, such as soy, coconut or sunflower. Also, its costs of production are lower than every other animal or vegetable oil, making it very cheap and accessible to the consumer, allowing it to be the used widely as a cooking oil in Asia, where the economic and demographic growth would lead to the increase in demand in the future (today India, China and Indonesia account for 40% of the world’s consumption). In the west, it was adopted in some diets, because it is healthier than other fats, and its use as a biofuel corresponds to more than half of its importation into Europe. 

To supply all the palm oil demand with alternative vegetable oil, it would take almost five times more land than coconut, sunflower and rapeseed, and more than eight times soy. Due to this, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil, on just 10% of the land. Thus, the suppliers were encouraged to increase production, and, for that purpose, they counted with the support of private funds, bank loans and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). 

This industry has a considerable impact on the economies of its producers, accounting for 13,7% of Malaysia’s gross national income, and it is the product more exported by Indonesia, the world’s top producer, accounting for nearly 40% of the worldwide production, providing employment to over two million Indonesians directly. 

Between 1995 and 2015, its annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes and by 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes, which lead the production to spread through Africa and Latin America. This production expansion promoted an increase in employment in this sector and, consequently, could lead to a decrease in poverty. However, this is not what has been happening

The workers in Malaysia and Indonesia complain about gender inequality: “The women on the plantations have no rights, not even the right to a salary in many cases” says Herwin Nasution, president of SERBUNDO, a trade union alliance representing mainly agricultural workers in Indonesia. The inexistence of an official employment contract makes these workers vulnerable to illegal conditions, turning the plantations into a place where labour exploitation and human rights abuse are a reality, and where, sometimes, child labour is found.  

In fact, the working conditions are very poor, with long shifts, limited access to clean water and use of toxic chemicals without adequate protective equipment, and the workers receive no support from their employees regarding health insurance, maternity license or school facilities.  

Additionally, palm oil production has a devastating impact on the environment. In order to produce the palm trees, tropical forests were burned and cut down, in one of the regions of the globe with more biodiversity and making it responsible for about 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008 (only in Indonesia there was recorded a loss of 25.6 million hectares of tree cover, during the period from 2001 to 2018). By burning these forests, greenhouse gas is released, namely CO2, having a severe contribution to global warming, and it is the main reason why Indonesia is the third country in the world with more gas emissions. Moreover, the intensive cultivation method without planning or care for the environment could lead to soil erosion and water pollution.  

Furthermore, it destroys the habitat of hundreds of species, even when it is considered illegal, as it happened in Riau, Indonesia, one of the most affected regions, where 84% of elephants living there died after losing 65% of its forest, in the last quarter a century. But Bornean Pygmy elephants weren’t the only ones affected by the deforestation. More than 100,000 Bornean orangutans, a critically endangered species, died between 1999 and 2015, and almost 75% of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, that secured the habitat for the endangered Sumatran tiger is now covered with illegal palm oil plantations.  

You could think that a way to solve this would be if we stopped producing or consuming it, and instead started buying other vegetable oils, such as soy. However, the problem would remain, because the need to make way to the plantation would stay the same. Also, these other plantations would need more land than palm oil, making these alternatives possibly worse, and, besides that, none of them would be a perfect substitute since none of them has the same versatility, utility or functionality as palm oil.

Despite this, the palm oil problem could still be lessened. The solution to this problem could be to change the way it is produced to a more sustainable one, that respects the rights of workers, recognizes the responsibility with the environment and uses the effluents and waste to other activities, along with the increase of inspections in order to close all the illegal plantations. The consumer could distinguish the products produced in a sustainable way through the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certificate (around 20% of the world’s production), that forbids deforestation and promotes the conservation of these highly diverse habitats.

The awareness regarding this topic has increased and, as a consequence, several companies and countries demand the production of this vegetable oil to have a certification of sustainability or are applying measures against it. In Norway, all importations of this oil as biofuel were banned, and in the UK, the supermarket chain Iceland started a campaign[1] to ban palm oil from their label products until it is proven to be of sustainable origin. In some cases, we can already see the results, such as in the UK, where 75% of the total palm oil imported was sustainable, by 2016.  

With development economies pursuing an exponential growth in palm oil production, such as Colombia, where fields that were formerly used to coca plantation or to raise cattle are converted to palm trees plantations, making it more sustainable, a new tomorrow to palm oil production arises.


[1] An example of this campaign is the following advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oA10-oZi4Xc


Sources: The Guardian, Org, WorldWildlife, Statista, Dialogochino, Cell, BBC

Mariana Gomes

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