The Food Industry and Palm Oil – A Destructive Relationship

The palm oil industry is said to reach a staggering $92.84 billion in 2021 due to consumer demand. 66 million tonnes of the oil is thought to be produced annually and this number is rising. It dominates supermarkets by 50% from food to cosmetics and is destroying life and our planet as we know it.

Everything You Need to Know About Palm Oil

Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit and seeds on the oil palm. It’s native to parts of West Africa but can grow in most low-lying, hot/tropical climates such as Indonesia and Malaysia (Southeast Asia) (producing 86% of the world’s supply). Indonesia is the biggest supplier of palm oil in the world.

Why is palm oil so popular? For one, it is used in an enormous amount of products across the globe due to the fact that it is resistant to oxidation, giving products a longer shelf-life. It is semi-solid at room temperature so it keeps butter and other spreads, well, spreadable. But one of the most common reasons as to why the demand for palm oil is high within the food industry is due to the fact that it is colorless and odorless, which doesn’t affect or alter the smell and look of food products.

What products contain Palm Oil? It’s everywhere. Palm oil is in your shampoo, soap, lipstick, and many other beauty products, ice cream, butter, peanut butter, instant noodles, bread, pizza’s (frozen and fresh), chocolate, cookies and even cleaning agents. It’s also a very important component for fuels. For example, half of the palm oil imported into the European Union is used to make biofuel and biodiesel.

Tips for choosing products that don’t contain palm oil – In many cases, the food industry tries to throw the consumers off (we have all been a victim of this). Here’s an example: Many food companies don’t clearly label their products ingredients, so here is a list of the many names Palm oil and it’s derivatives may appear under.

Other names for Palm Oil
Vegetable Fat Vegetable Oil
Palm Fruit Oil Palm Kernel Oil
Palm Kernel Palmate
Palmolein Palmitate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
Elaeis Guineensis Stearic Acid
Palmityl Alcohol Octyl Palmitate
Etyl Palmitate Hyrated Palm Glycerides

To further avoid purchasing palm oil, choose products that are labeled as 100% olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, corn oil or canola oil. Prepackaged foods made my large corporate giants such as Nestle generally contain palm oil. It’s also worth mentioning that products that make up more than 40% of saturated fat (as it’s total fat content) pretty much always contain palm oil too.

The Negative Effects of Palm Oil on People

Since the Europe Union made changes in trying to “save the planet” by imposing biofuel quotas, member states committed to adding 5% of vegetable oil to fuels. This quota is expected to rise to 10%. There are also high-flying plans to drastically increase the use of palm oil in aviation fuel but what are the effects on Indonesians and their environment?

In Meralco, a region of southern Papua, the government has permitted the destruction of 1 million hectares of rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations. As a result of this, locals lived under a thick blanket of toxic smog for 3 months. Air pollution levels reached 3000% above the health-threatening legal limit. 9’000 people died from the effects of smoking poisoning.

In other regions, rainforests are being burnt down. 2.6 million hectares have been destroyed (a region almost the size of Belgium). Palm oil companies are responsible for about half the fires laid. in the province of Jambi in Sumatra, the police were able to prove arson by confiscating a petrol canister as a form of evidence. As a result, the palm oil company known as PT Kallista Alam was fined 12 million euros. Unilever, another palm oil company and supplier was found guilty of burning down the forest the cheapest way to make lucrative palm oil plantations.

The RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, was founded by companies like Unilever and Wilma together with the WWF founded it. The RSPO certificate is supposed to guarantee transparency throughout the supply chain from factory to plantation. Palm oil farmers say that there are no agreements and no conditions for sale, as long as the fruits are unripe or rotten, they will accept them and will buy anything at a discount. A distributor buys the fruits and pays the farmers directly. The palm oil plants are mixed up and delivered to the factories where nobody cares about where they have come from, and how they were grown and harvested. While the RSPO say they can trace 60% of the palm oil produced, their process is telling us differently.

According to the RSPO, health and safety and other standards must be met. Toxic pesticides are banned from being used, however, farmers are not aware of these regulations and therefore uses the highly toxic pesticide Erakat which is banned according to the RSPO. These farmers don’t wear protective gear when spraying the pesticide as they cannot afford to purchase it and therefore put their health at risk. Farmers don’t know what the RSPO is when asked about it and state that no one from the RSPO has come to view and inspect their farm.

Under RSPO standards child labor is forbidden. However, children younger than the age of eight have been seen working on these farms. They pick the palm oil fruits and put them in large, heavy sacks, so heavy that adults need to help them.

The Negative Effects of Palm Oil on Orangutans

While it’s clear that big corporations are destroying the living standards of Indonesia and other southeast Asians, they are also endangering species. One’s close to home.

Up to 7 million years ago, there was nothing like a human on earth. There was not even a pre-human standing upright. Great apes, much like the ones that live today where the closest things to us. The closest living relative to humans is the orangutan.

In Borneo, during 1999 and 2015, over 150’000 orangutans have been lost (over half of its population) due to habitat loss driven by palm oil harvesting. Researches have predicted that over the next 35 years, 45’000 orangutans will be lost.

The illegal deforestation due to high palm oil demands is damaging our earth lungs, the rain forests, which are also home to our distant relatives. How do we prevent this? Strength in numbers. There is power in consumerism. Question major corporations on their methods, read product labels and stop feeding multi-billion dollar companies that don’t care about our animals and our planet.

Here’s how another plant, hemp, could counteract the damage caused by these multi-billion co-ops.