My interest in palm oil and its effects on the environment started when I went vegan in 2014 (I am not vegan anymore but that’s a post for another day). My interest peaked in 2016 when I went on an overseas conservation trip to Sumatra, in which we helped to plant fruit trees where palm oil used to grow and educate locals on the detrimental effects of palm oil on both the environment and on the wildlife (Specifically the Sumatran Orang Utans).
Do you know that palm oil or palm kernel oil is estimated to be in half of all packaged products in supermarkets? Similar to soybean and corn oil, palm oil is processed into a large number of foods and consumer products and is often a key ingredient in many foods and household items. In addition, the move towards biodiesel has also increased the demand for palm oil.
Why is palm oil extensively used in our everyday lives?
According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, palm oil has a balanced fatty acid composition in which the level of saturated fatty acids is almost equal to that of the unsaturated fatty acids. Palmitic acid (44%-45%) and oleic acid (39%-40%) are the major component acids, with linoleic acid (10%-11%) and only a trace amount of linolenic acid. The low level of linoleic acid and the virtual absence of linolenic acid make the oil relatively stable to oxidative deterioration.
It also has a high smoke point of 245 degrees Celcius. In cooking, the smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which, under defined conditions, enough volatile compounds emerge from the oil that a bluish smoke becomes clearly visible. At this temperature, volatile compounds, such as water, free fatty acids, and short-chain degradation products of oxidation come up from the oil.
Basically, in layman’s term, palm oil does not cause food to spoil easily and is ideal for frying and cooking food without having any toxic compounds leaching into the food.
Hence, given an explanation as to why it is often preferred over other sources of oil.
Now, we have to ask ourselves- what are the environmental effects of palm oil? Why is sustainable palm oil so important? Answering these questions will help us understand the need to raise awareness on the prevalence of palm oil, the effects it has and steps we can take to move away from unsustainable palm oil.
Every hour, 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations. It is no doubt that palm oil is destructive to the lungs of the earth – our rainforests.
In Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, millions of acres of land are cleared to plant palm oil. In fact, our neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia produce 80% of the world’s palm oil and the primary technique used to clear forests is through the method of slash and burn. This means that acres of what was once trees are logged and set into flames. This causes not just air pollution, but also the loss of habitat for the animals once living in the forests. The large use of herbicides and fertilizers in the growth of palm oil trees means that plants in that forests become monoculture plantations and lose all native flora and fauna. This not only drives known species of native plants to extinction, but we also lose all ability to fully study the native environment and flora and fauna of the rainforest that has been cleared.
In the last 20 years, over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil (critically endangered and this is largely due to the planting of palm oil, with the highest record of 6,000 lives lost in a year. If you have yet watched the heartbreaking video of an orangutan trying to defend its home, check it out here.
This devastating impact also affects other unrecorded animals living in these rainforests. Imagine your home being burned away and replaced with palm oil trees. You lose not just your home, but also your source of food. Many animals eventually die from starvation, if not from asphyxiation (suffocation from smoke) during the forest fires.
Sustainable Palm Oil
So, what is sustainable palm oil? According to PM Haze, sustainable palm oil companies use zero-burning methods to clear land, respect land rights and work with local communities to minimise the use of fire, protect forests and plant on existing open land. Truth be told, it is very difficult to measure whether it is sustainable as you cannot tell after it has been refined (if it has been mixed or not). Even companies that sell sustainable palm oil admit that they cannot assure that the oil is purely sustainable. However, it is still optimal to go for sustainable palm oil.
What can we do?
In Singapore, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil is currently the closest option we have for haze-free palm oil. Hence, vegetable oil that only uses sustainable palm oil will be ‘RSPO-certified.’
We are currently still slowly progressing towards a palm-oil free world. And as we do this, we can try our best to switch to oils like pure coconut or olive oil for cooking (please note that olive oil burns easily and is unsuitable for cooking at high heat). We can first check the ingredients of the products we buy – especially our soaps and beauty products and avoid those with palm oil. While avoiding palm oil in food is difficult, it is easier to switch to palm-oil free beauty products. Look for products with other oil bases (coconut or jojoba) or simply ensure that sustainable palm oil is used. Often, products with sustainable palm oil will clearly indicate that the palm oil used is sustainable.
While complete avoidance is virtually impossible in a palm-oil intoxicated world, it is important to know about the palm oil problem and slowly try to reduce our use of palm oil products. By voting with our dollar, we are telling suppliers we do not want palm oil, or that we only want sustainable palm oil. This indeed will slowly drive the economic change needed to alleviate the problems that palm oil brings upon society.