The Plight of Palm Oil

Feb 07

There is a good probability that you have already used some sort of product containing palm oil today. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil used in products around the globe. Half of all packaged foods contain it, and it is also largely used in fuels, soaps and cosmetics.
Part of why palm oil has such a wide and diverse reach is due to its cost—and land-efficient nature. It is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop, and it only needs half as much land as its counterparts to produce the same amount of oil.

While this makes a strong case for palm oil, there is one considerable drawback to its current production: deforestation. Each year, 620,000ha of rainforest are lost forever in Indonesia, and the biggest contributor to this is the palm oil sector, according to The Ecologist. Losing these forests affects our climate and pushes some species to the brink of extinction, including the Sumatran Tiger. In some cases, local communities are not consulted over the use of their land and are forced to leave so that more forests can be cleared and palm oil plantations can be created.

Obviously, we’d all like to be able to wash our hands without feeling guilty, so why not stop using palm oil altogether? One reason is that palm oil is the lessor of the “evils,” in a sense. Remember, producing palm oil cuts the amount of land that other oils need for production in half. Palm oil also provides wages for 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia. Cutting its production would have a big impact on those families who rely on it for income.

So then, what is the solution to this conundrum? One possible route is for product companies to stop sourcing their palm oil from deforested lands. Companies like Nestlé, Unilever and Ferrero have already committed to policies like this.

Beauty product conglomerate, L'Oreal, just announced it is making a similar commitment. By 2020, L’Oreal will give preference to palm oil suppliers that can prove the oil is not linked to deforestation and that there is a free and informed consent of indigenous peoples, if applicable to its production. The question is, will this be enough, and will other companies follow suit?


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