Check the food products in your fridge and cupboards and more than likely you’ll find that many of them contain palm oil. It’s in over 50% of the packaged food that we buy in Britain. It’s an incredibly versatile oil that makes it useful in lots of different products. It’s also a very efficient crop, producing high quantities of oil on relatively small areas of land all year-round. Globally, palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils. All of this makes it very attractive to growers in tropical areas.
Sadly, because it is such a profitable plant to grow, huge areas of forest habitats of been destroyed to plant palm oil plantations. It is thought to be the biggest driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. This deforestation also damages the carbon-rich soils throwing out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change.
Governments, NGOs and producers around the world have been working to reduce this impact and produce palm oil in a more sustainable way. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria, which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. These criteria help to minimize the impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities. In 2012, the UK Government set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources, but we are yet to achieve this goal.
So, shouldn’t we be looking for products that don’t contain palm oil at all? It’s not that simple, because palm oil is such an efficient crop, to get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or sunflower oil you would need up to 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and communities. Furthermore, there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihoods.
“So, for now, most experts agree that the best thing that we can all do is to check that we’re buying products containing sustainable palm oil next time we’re shopping. The WWF website also has a Palm Oil Buyers scorecard, which shows which brands and retailers are committed to sustainable palm oil.”