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What Is Palm Oil & Why Is It Problematic?

What do palm oil, deforestation and those fires raging in the Amazon have to do with one another? As it turns out, everything. You may have heard the controversy surrounding palm oil previously, and with all the fads in food and beauty products coming and going at such a dizzying pace, you’d be forgiven for not understanding what all the hubbub was about. But the massive spike in catastrophic fires in the Amazon Rainforest make it clear: It’s time everyone sat up and paid attention to palm oil.

What is palm oil? What does it have to do with deforestation? What products contain palm oil? Is it really that bad? Let’s look into it.

What is palm oil & where does it come from?

Made from the fruits of African oil palms, palm oil is a type of vegetable oil. The trees originated in west and southwest Africa. However, they’ll grow in any tropical rainforest area, including the Amazon.

What types of products might contain palm oil

Palm oil is appealing to manufacturers because it has a lot of potential functions. It can enhance texture, increase a product’s melting point, precook noodles, act as a conditioning agent and more.

And when we say palm oil is used in anything and everything, we meant it. Just check out the WWF’s list of products, both edible and inedible, that might have palm oil in them:

  • Biodiesel
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Detergent
  • Ice cream
  • Instant noodles (like ramen)
  • Lipstick
  • Margarine
  • Packaged bread
  • Pizza dough
  • Shampoo
  • Soap

And just because it’s not on this list doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain palm oil. Always check the label.

Is palm oil bad?

It’s important to note that palm oil isn’t inherently dangerous to humans. It’s actually in hundreds of the products you eat and use daily. It’s the mass production of palm oil that has devastating environmental impacts.

What kind of impacts?

First, let’s look at why it has become so popular.  On the one hand, Dr. Emma Keller of the World Wide Fund for Nature told the BBC in November 2018, “Palm oil is a super-efficient crop, meaning that we can produce a lot more palm oil per area of land compared to other oil crops like soybean oil or coconut oil.” Moreover, the BBC reports that palm trees require fewer pesticides and fertilizers, making them cheaper to grow and safer for human consumption.

Palm oil production also provides jobs. Many of the countries with robust palm oil industries also have a significant number of people living in poverty, and these jobs become vital to their individual security and the country’s economy.

Well, that all sounds great so why is it so controversial? Between January and August 2019, the number of fires in the Amazon nearly doubled from the previous year according to German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

And respected climate scientist Carlos Nobre of São Paolo University told DW the problem isn’t climate change this time. It’s politics.

Palm oil and deforestation

Nobre told DW there’s no significant change in the current climate in Brazil that would be causing such a high number of fires. According to Nobre, the source of the issue is the polices of far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

Not only has Bolsonaro been deregulating the industry, dismantling previous legislation that protected the forest, but he’s also been actively encouraging farmers to increase production to boost the economy. In Brazil, as in much of the world, clearing land in the Amazon means burning swaths of land and allowing it to dry and the ashes to fertilize the soil. Then it can be used for planting food to graze livestock or for agricultural purposes, such as palm oil.

While Bolsonaro himself blames (without evidence) the very companies that are trying to protect the Amazon for starting the fires in an attempt to embarrass him, Nobre says the fires are primarily being started by farmers, leading to serious deforestation in the area. (Note that a small number of fires are possibly also a natural part of the life cycle of forests.)

In addition to endangering the rainforest itself (which according to South American Vacations is the source for 25 percent of all drugs used in modern medicine), it’s displacing or killing local wildlife — with the potential to have serious or permanent consequences for endangered species such as rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans — and endangering the lives of the communities of people who’ve lived in the rainforest for centuries.

What can we do?

Like we said earlier, palm oil isn’t inherently bad. But the demand for more and more palm oil to be produced is destroying habitats and wildlife at an alarming rate. That’s why it’s important to drastically reduce the number of products you use that contain palm oil or purchase palm oil-containing products that are made from sustainably grown oil. Companies that use only sustainable palm oil can get a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification label, but you can also check out GreenPalm Sustainability for more tips on how to buy sustainable palm oil-containing products.

That can get confusing in the U.S., as palm oil may be somewhat hidden in the ingredients list. It may say, “hydrogenated vegetable oil” with the types of oils it might be (in the case of a blend) in parenthesis. So make sure you read carefully and don’t skip those parentheticals.

But you’re not done yet. You also need to know all the other names palm oil might hide under in the ingredients list. There are over 200 of them, so make sure you bookmark this alphabetical list of palm oil name alternatives on your smartphone’s browser to reference in the store.

Take it a step further and contact your federal congresspeople and demand the U.S. government take action to stop countries like Brazil from utilizing these irresponsible agricultural practices and clarify U.S. labeling standards for palm oil so it can’t be hidden. (If you’re in the E.U., congratulations; that’s already the rule there.)

So, if you want to help combat deforestation, it’s OK to use palm oil-containing products. Just verify where they came from first. And if you can’t verify it, don’t buy it.

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