Palm oil is in all your snack foods - in fact, it’s in 50% of all packaged products in supermarkets. It is a semi-solid vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis Guineensis), an African tree that is now predominantly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesia and Malaysia were once some of the most abundantly diverse forested countries. Due to palm oil production, they are now two of the most badly deforested countries. Indonesia lost approximately 289 000 acres of indigenous forest EVERY YEAR between 1995 and 2015. The native animals, including Orangutans, Pygmy Elephants and Sumatran Rhino, are rapidly losing their habitat and have become endangered. There are now less than 1500 Pygmy elephants left in Malaysia.
This loss of natural forest is not only threatening endemic wildlife species, it is also reducing the carbon-sink capacity of the area as natural forests sequester far more carbon than plantations. Adding to this, the conversion of peat soils (which are incredibly efficient at holding carbon) through burning is releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The palm oil sector is notorious for its exploitation of local workers and its use of child labour. Therefore, the local people of Indonesia and Malaysia have become very poor while the mega-companies selling palm oil get rich off of their hard work. Big companies are said to be illegally taking land from locals to expand their palm oil plantations.
Palm Oil is, unfortunately, almost irreplaceably useful to the food industry due to its stability at high temperatures and its long shelf life. Switching to alternative vegetable oils would require much more land as palm oil yields by far the most oil per hectare of land used. Many people now rely on the palm oil industry as their only source of income and this would make a push to totally boycott palm oil, worldwide, an incomplete solution.
The World Wildlife Fund has been working hard to combat this destructive industry, negotiating with large corporations and working with local people to come up with the best solutions for all. The WWF seemed to have successfully convinced more than 100 hugely destructive companies to change their ways, become accountable and switch to RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) certified palm oil in their supply chain by 2020. Unfortunately, many of these companies do not appear to be meeting their commitments as the year draws to a close.
The RSPO’s aims are to ‘limit environmental destruction and human rights abuse’ – which, in itself, is inadequate and companies are even failing to meet these standards. There is an oversupply of sustainable palm oil that companies are not buying.
There is clearly not enough pressure on mega-companies to take environmental and human rights issues seriously. As consumers who care about the protection of the Earth, animals and exploited humans – it is up to us to increase the pressure on irresponsible companies and even on organizations like WWF to raise their standards when it comes to the destruction of the natural world.
Strictly limiting our use of palm oil to those companies that have made the effort to become RSPO certified is a big step (find the report here: https://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/file/WWF_Palm_Oil_Scorecard_2020.pdf), this would boycott non-compliant companies by default - while reducing our snack-food consumption just happens to be better for our health as individuals as well as reducing our plastic usage. It is extremely important to look at what our consumer purchases are supporting and to actively manage that. We can also put pressure on our local supermarkets to stock more RSPO certified products, whilst also reducing our general consumptive impact by buying local and growing our own food.
Let us not allow companies to hide their failures beneath a global pandemic. The time for change is now.