When you’re making up your shopping list, it’s a safe bet that palm oil doesn’t appear on it. In fact, you may not even be aware that you are eating it, or using it in your home. Yet this obscure, tropical ingredient turns up in one in every processed foods. It’s in everything from crisps, instant soup, biscuits and chips to ice cream, margarine and chocolate, as well as being a common ingredient in fast food. Some of the most beloved foods in the world contain palm oil – including Nutella spreads, which contain nearly 20 per cent of this saturated fat and even breakfast cereals.
Most of us also use it unknowingly in products such as detergent, soaps, toothpaste, eyeliner, lipstick, shampoo, and even as fuel. We need to know more about this mystery ingredient because when we eat or use palm oil for cooking, we could indirectly be aiding the destruction of tropical forests, the extinction of endangered animals and human rights abuses.
PALM TREES VS FORESTS
Palm oil is an ancient oil derived from the eponymous tree. Where once it was grown in a traditional way to provide a source of food and income for small growers, in recent years, its production has expanded. Nowadays, it is cultivated on vast plantations owned by large companies. The problem is that whole swathes of virgin forest in Malaysia and Indonesia have been cleared or burnt down to make way for palm oil production. This peaty forest is one of the most concentrated stores of carbon on the planet; clearing the forest on top, draining the peat and burning it releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases.
Land clearance for palm oil plantations has seen indigenous people and small growers displaced from their land and according to environmental groups, suffer human rights abuses as a result. Rare wildlife has also paid a price for palm oil expansion. The Sumatran tiger is also threatened.
Despite all the issues surrounding palm oil, demand for it continues to soar. It is the cheapest oil available to food manufacturers, which makes it very attractive. In recent years, Indian imports of both crude palm oil and the refined kind, which is used for cooking, have soared. In fact, along with China and the EU, India is one of the largest importers of palm oil in the world. While India imported 7.67 million tonnes of palm oil in 2011-12, that figure is expected to jump by as much as 17 per cent in 2013, to a projected 9 million tonnes, according to a Reuters report.
Now that health campaigners have largely succeeded in getting companies to remove artery-clogging trans fats from their foods, palm oil is more in demand than ever as a cheap replacement for chemically hardened hydrogenated fats such as dalda. Unlike other vegetable oils, palm oil is solid at room temperature, making it perfect for use in the food industry as it allows products to have a longer shelf-life.
Being cheap and easy to grow, palm oil also makes a perfect crop for biofuels. This means that the hunt for less environmentally destructive alternatives to petrol and diesel is pushing further palm oil expansion. Palm oil is increasingly stepping in to compensate for fast depleting fossil fuels. In 2010, the European Union set the goal that requires that 10 per cent of all transportation fuel should come from sustainable or renewable sources by 2020. As a result, palm oil is being used to make petrol and diesel in the UK and elsewhere. Now more than ever before, palm oil is playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives.
GREENING UP PALM OIL
In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit organisation that represents all the stakeholders involved in the palm oil business, was created in Zurich, aiming to encourage producers to grow more responsibly, while retailers and manufacturers undertake to buy palm oil that comes from sustainable sources. Aware of their inability to say where their palm oil came from, many supermarkets and food manufacturers signed up to the scheme.
It aims to promote and certify palm oil that is grown in a responsible way. For instance, rainforests cannot be cut down, there can be no carbon-releasing burning, the palms must be managed using natural fertilisers rather than pesticides and harvested using buffalo instead of heavy equipment that would damage the soil.
This initiative, in tandem with campaigning by environmentalists, has had some success. By 2006, the Indonesian government abandoned its plans to create a palm oil fence running the length of the Malaysia-Indonesia border in Borneo. This mega-plantation – which would have been equivalent to one and a half times the size of Wales (making it the world’s biggest and most destructive agricultural project) -would have sounded the death knell for the remaining orangutans on the island.
Currently, several leading supermarkets in Britain have made very public commitments to use only sustainably sourced palm oil in the near future. They are moving over to using only RSPO-certified oil that comes with ‘green palm’ certificates. However, in India, there is still very little awareness about the environmental tradeoff involved in producing cheap palm oil for consumption and cooking.
NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund India have been campaigning to increase consumer and corporate awareness about palm oil. A few companies have sat up and taken notice. For instance, toeing the line of its parent company Unilever – a long-time member of the RSPO -Hindustan Unilever is one of the first Indian companies to commit to procuring certified sustainable palm oil.
However, environmental groups say that despite the RSPO’s interventions, the problems associated with palm oil are still far from resolved. They claim that even apparently sustainable oil may not be what it seems. Greenpeace palm oil campaigner Ian Duff says that powerful palm oil-growing companies have pressurised the round-table to set standards that are too weak and not properly enforced.
Besides, food labelling regulations don’t stipulate that palm oil be labelled separately. If this was done, it could no longer be included anonymously under the generic vegetable oil and fat labels, and people would know they were eating it.
Five years ago, very few people knew about the controversy surrounding oil. Now, it is on our radar. But it may be some time yet, it seems, before the world’s last remaining orangutans can snooze blissfully under the forest canopy without being disturbed by the approaching hum of a chain saw.
HOW TO MAKE PALM OIL MORE SUSTAINABLE
■ Avoid products that list vegetable oil, margarine or fat of unspecified origin as an ingredient. Opt instead for those that use butter, or one specific oil such as olive, sunflower, corn or peanut oil.
■ If you do buy food containing vegetable oil, look at the nutrition label to see whether or not it contains saturated fat. If anything more than minimal amounts of saturated fat are listed, there is a high chance that you are buying palm oil.
■ Stop buying non-food products containing palm oil. Look at the label – palm oil has to be listed, but it appears under its botanical name, elaeis guineensis.
■ Check out the World Wildlife Fund’s score-card that rates supermarkets and manufacturers according to how progressive they are on using palm oil from sustainable sources.
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