Palm oil: it’s so much a part of our lives now that you’ve probably already used it today, even if you’ve only just had breakfast! It’s in our shampoos and toothpaste, in the butter and milk you might have used for your coffee and toast, and in the deodorant you (hopefully!) put on this morning. If you went for a drive, it could even have been part of the fuel you used.
Overall, palm oil has found its way into half of all consumer products. However, it has recently been put under the spotlight and is being scrutinised for its effects on the environment and the eco-systems it is harvested from.
So what’s the problem with palm oil?
One of the most significant issues surrounding palm oil is that the growth in its demand has driven the clearing of rainforest to make space for growing it. The egregious rate of this forest clearance is the concern here, especially as the habitats being eaten away are among the most biodiverse on the planet. The homes of already vulnerable species such as the Orangutan are being put at even greater risk, and the local plant life is also jeopardised, as they are being replaced by oil palm trees.
Beyond these immediate impacts, palm oil production also constitutes a significant contribution to greenhouse gases: the burning of forests, loss of the carbon sink provided by trees, and the carbon-rich soils used to grow oil palm trees all play a hand in this. Smoke haze from the fires also blight the areas of forest clearance, and pesticide use and resultant runoff bring a whole host of disturbances to the delicate ecosystems.
A more complex fallout of palm oil farming is an increase in human conflict, rising out of disputes over land rights or compensations. This is down to polarised stories about how communities are affected by palm oil, with the tipping point between benefit and harm often being the pre-existing experience of the community in the market economy. Those with their feet already firmly in the waters of the market economy tend to thrive with palm oil farming, but those communities that were previously dependent on the forest tend to become worse off. This is often the result of the widely varying ways companies compensate and trade with the local people, with some emerging evidence of systems of land grabbing and forcing these people off their lands.
Why is it so hard to replace?
So if palm oil has so many detrimental effects on humans, animals and the wider environment, why is it still so commonplace? The answers to this may lie in the efforts of those who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to remove it from their products. The well-publicised attempt of Iceland to remove palm oil from their own-label food by the end of 2018 led to mixed results. They successfully managed to reduce demand for palm oil by more than 500 tonnes a year, but they also demonstrated how difficult the process of palm oil substitution or removal can be. They couldn’t meet their self imposed deadline for 17 products, and instead resorted to simply removing Iceland branding from these products.
It turns out it’s incredibly hard to replace, as it’s just so versatile: it’s very cheap to produce; it’s odourless, making it perfect for use in cooking; the crop is highly productive; it has preservative properties, so can be used to give products a long shelf life. The reality is, therefore, that palm oil is undoubtedly a highly valuable product, and this presents lofty challenges to those who seek to find a substitute.
Other barriers to be overcome include the necessity of financial support to fund research, the fact any possible alternatives must be more sustainable than palm oil to be viable, and that the alternative needs to be accepted by the consumers. Also, simply increasing production of other oils to meet palm oil demand will only displace these negative impacts, as these other oil crops need up to 9 times as much land as palm oil crops. These difficulties go some way to explain why we are still seeing palm oil in so many products on our shelves, despite the many negative, and far reaching, impacts it has.
Is this the whole picture though?
While it is hugely disastrous to the rainforest and environment, an often overlooked fact is that palm oil has also been of great benefit to many people. For many it has provided a source of stable work and improved income, with initial success often improving the overall economy of regions and then bringing in further investments in services and infrastructure. These changes brought by palm oil wealth can include new roads, which open up access to important facilities such as schools and health services.
Some producers also aim to mitigate their environmental impacts by planting their palm oil crops in areas that have already been deforested, preventing the loss of further forest and habitat. This demonstrates that more nuance exists than some extreme opinions purport, and perfectly illustrates the great variation in approaches to palm oil farming. It seems a more holistic view needs to be adopted, taking into account these numerous benefits of palm oil, as well as its effects on hunger and poverty. We need to take into account all the ‘shareholders’ of palm oil: farmers, governments making legislation, sellers, producers, consumers, deforestation campaigners.
In the face of these numerous benefits, it is recognised that at least some degree of balance is required to level out the extreme views on either side of the controversy of the oil. An approach that minimises harm and maximises benefit is required, and many believe there is space in this solution for palm oil synthetic alternatives.
One startup, C16 Bioscience, is looking at using the fermentation process to their advantage and using genetically modified yeast to ferment food waste into a synthetic product which closely resembles palm oil. It’s in early stages but already has promising backing from a fund backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The biggest opportunity for such synthetic alternatives lie mainly in beauty products, as the price point of palm oil in biofuel and food products is too low to realistically meet. It’s also not thought that enough consumers will want to consume products containing a microbe-derived ingredient to make this a viable route.
What is clear is that, with some projections estimating that production of palm oil will nearly triple by 2050, some rethinking about the methods of farming and manufacturers is crucial. We need to make sure we do enough to protect the environment and the habitats and species living in them, as well as the humans involved in palm oil, while not demonising the business. Prioritising good trading and farming standards while looking at potential synthetic alternatives to help stem the burgeoning demand is perhaps one way to achieve this delicate balance.