As the food and drink industries have evolved, humanity has developed ever more ingenious ways of altering and adapting what we eat. Whether to change taste, texture or longevity, there are a host of hidden additives in our food. In many cases, as demand for these additives has increased, our consumption has begun to have adverse effects in ways that we could not have predicted. Over the last few decades, one product in particular has established itself as both an essential ingredient in everyday products and one of the biggest threats facing our planet today.
Around the world, we produce 66 million tonnes of palm oil every year. This makes it the most commonly produced type of vegetable oil, accounting for 30 per cent of all global vegetable oil production. We need to produce such enormous quantities because we use palm oil everywhere. Approximately 40 to 50 per cent of all household products contain it, including shampoo, toothpaste and detergent. It is also in our food. Potato chips, frozen pizzas, confectionary, baked goods and spreads are all examples of store cupboard staples that contain high levels of palm oil. About half of packaged foods sold in the supermarket use it as an ingredient. With a low production cost and natural properties that lend themselves to use in processed foods, palm oil has successfully established itself as one of the world’s biggest industries.
Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. Originally from West African countries such as Angola and Gambia, the plant is hardy, adaptable and thrives in warm, tropical climates. In 1969, the African palm oil tree was introduced to Malaysia, in a move that would have huge consequences for the planet. Today, the tree is cultivated across Southeast Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia dominant forces in the industry, as well as Africa and South America. As demand for the product has risen, so too have the number of businesses looking to profit. For many years, it seemed as though the economic benefits for local people and industry outweighed any potential concerns over the long-term impact of palm oil plantations. However, it has become clear that there are a number of insidious outcomes from our palm oil dependency.
Perhaps the most significant impact has been environmental. As palm oil has become an accepted necessity in the food industry, huge swathes of rainforest have been destroyed to make way for plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area of rainforest equal to the size of 300 football fields is cleared every hour around the world to make way for palm oil plantations. This is disastrous for forest wildlife and ecosystems. In Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producers, deforestation has caused species like the orangutan to become threatened with extinction as their habitats shrink. Thanks to palm oil, 27 million hectares around the world - an area about the size of New Zealand - has been designated a “green desert” due to the lack of biodiversity that can survive on the plantations. Today, forests that were once the most abundant and diverse on earth are at risk of being wiped out.
It’s not just the environment that suffers at the hands of the palm oil industry. Our obsession is also putting people at risk. Businesses often come into conflict with indigenous communities, who find their homelands destroyed to make way for plantations. In Indonesia, it is estimated that more than 700 land conflicts are currently related directly to palm oil. The industry has been linked to numerous human rights violations, including forced child labour. Beyond legal disputes, there is also evidence that palm oil’s presence in our food is having a serious impact on our health. Studies have shown that refined oil contains high levels of harmful fatty acids known to damage DNA and cause cancer.
The prevalence of palm oil in our food is something that affects us all. However, when the substance is so universal, it is difficult to know where to begin if you want to avoid it. While we are probably more aware than ever of the detrimental effects that palm oil is having on the planet, there is a clear division in the food industry about how to proceed. Some companies, such as Nestle, Ferrero and Unilever, have embraced the need for change by committing to sustainably sourced palm oil. As a consumer, a great way to tell how green a particular product may be is to look for the mark of an organisation dedicated to sustainable palm oil. Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or Green Palm Alliance labels are an easy way to guarantee that a product has been manufactured ethically.
It also pays to be aware how businesses may attempt to mask the use of palm oil in their products. According to the Huffington Post, there are currently more than 170 chemical pseudonyms that companies use to mislead customers. Complicated sounding ingredients such as “Hydrated Palm Glycerides” and “Etyl Palmitate” are actually just derivatives of palm oil and are just as harmful to the environment.
For all the jobs that the industry creates and the wealth that it can theoretically generate, the environmental and human impacts are such that palm oil is an industry that we cannot afford to indulge. Though the substance continues to be used by major companies in food products around the world, it is important to remember that the power ultimately lies with the consumer. Palm oil has been allowed to become as pervasive as it is because we as customers have, until now, been unwilling to think too deeply about the source of the products we use and the food we consume. If we want to put a stop to the ingredient that is slowly killing our planet, we need to make a conscious decision to avoid it. It will require extra effort, but if we care about both the planet and our own wellbeing, it is worth taking the time.