Palm Oil, Saving The Environment, But is it Really All That Simple?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil highly saturated in fat, quite similar to that of coconut oil. Production of palm oil has dramatically increased over the past four years, from 62 million tonnes in 2015 totalling to 69.5 million tonnes in 2018. There are an estimated 17 million hectares across the equator of palm oil plantations, most of which is predominantly produced in Indonesia. In 2016, Indonesia produced an astounding 34.5 million tonnes and was able to export 63.5% of this palm oil across the globe. 

Palm oil is used in the manufacturing of approximately 50% of Australian products including cosmetics and food. According to WWF (WorldWildlife), Australia imports 130,000 tonnes of palm oil on an annual basis. Its versatility has labelled it the world’s most highly sought for edible oil for reasons including the fact that it not only has a longer shelf life than other fats such as butter but is also considerably cheap and can be used as an ingredient in foods (e.g ice cream, chocolate spread) cosmetics (e.g makeup, shampoo) and even as biofuel in more recent years. Oil palms are able to grow at a higher rate per hectare of land than any other crop, hence yielding great amounts of palm oil that allows it to meet its high demand.

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Palm oil is predominantly produced in the humid tropics and generally flourishes at faster rates when planted 10 degrees north and south of the equator. On too many occasions, rainforests will be deforested in order to provide land that can be used to produce larger fields of oil palms due to the fact that it is so greatly sought after. Because of this, Indonesian tropics/rainforests with eminent conservation values are currently being deforested at faster rates than any other country on Earth, primarily so that palm oil can be produced.

Together, Indonesia and Malaysia are responsible for 84% of palm oil production across the globe, and the demand is still increasing. Small-scale farmers and vegetable oil production companies are mainly responsible for the production of palm oil in Thailand, with 76% of the country’s harvest being produced by local farms and the rest, authorised corporations. It has also been rumoured that many oil palm plantations have been inaugurated under illegal circumstances and use child and forced labour in order to produce the oil without the cost of paying employees.

Rainforests are usually distinguished and can consequently be identified, by possessing five predominant features. These include their location, rainfall patterns/volume, canopy, biodiversity and, the symbiotic relationships shared by species present within the area. For a rainforest to be correctly determined, it must receive approximately 200 centimetres of rain each year on a minimum scale. The canopy consists of matured trees that form a protective foliage over the ground. These trees tend to dominate at approximately 30 metres high, above other vegetation. Rainforests generally acquire a greater amount of diversity due to the climate and the minimal threats that may oppose living organisms. Because of the excessive rate of rainfall, atmospheric conditions are primarily both wet and warm/humid. This is considerably beneficial for the growth of organisms within an ecosystem. When species are able to benefit from each other’s actions, we classify these interactions into four main types of symbiosis. Commensalism (when only one organism greatly benefits from the relationship although the other is not impacted), parasitism (an organism is negatively affected due to another’s actions),  mutualism (both organisms face benefits), and endosymbiosis (when one species thrives within the other).

In the process of milling, for every metric tonne of palm oil that is produced, it is approximated that  2.5 metric tonnes of POME (palm oil mill efficient) are created. This high output of POME then leaks into waterways, polluting them and as a result endangering marine biomes. Other impacts to biomes due to palm oil production include the erosion of soil. As oil palms are planted in the ground, the rows of saplings create channels in the ground through which water is able to flow. This hence forms channels of heavily running water that takes soil from the surface.    

Climate change is a majorly predominant problem across the world, and we face a multitude of implications concerning this constantly intensifying risk. A study undertaken by SPOTT concluded that “10% of carbon emissions across the world on an annual basis are connected with the occurrence of deforestation in the tropics.” Forest fires caused by the construction of plantations in Indonesia also contribute to global warming as the method of burning the soil to enhance its richness for agricultural purposes releases harmful levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  

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During the years 1990-2005, 55-60% of palm oil development replaced virgin forest in Indonesia. As a consequence of land clearance, an outrageous loss of biodiversity in rainforest/tropics across the globe has taken place. This is because the species in tropical rainforests have become adapted to their habitats, and when destroyed are unable to seek further refuge. They are then forced to travel to smaller areas of land that tend to be dangerously near oil plantations, making them an easy target for illegal hunting. A study noted on by SPOTT.org stated that only “15% of forest species can survive in plantations. In fact, every 24 hours an equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforest in Indonesia is being deforested for the purpose of constructing oil plantations.” Due to oil palming, each year we lose 6000 orangutans and there are currently as little as 1500 Borneo elephants, 3000 Sumatran elephants, 100 Sumatran rhinos and 400 Sumatran tigers left not just in Indonesian rainforest where major production occurs but in the entirety of the world. These critically endangered species are helpless and vulnerable to the negative impacts of oil palming, only we can take action to save them from eternal extinction.

Certifying producers of palm oil has proven to be an effective method to reduce environmental impacts for it increases the visibility and traceability of mills, consequently mitigating any risk.  An increase in transparency is indefinitely needed in order for a change in the industry to occur. As of 2018, a company known as Unilever was able to map 1600 mills across the globe. In doing so, they have successfully gathered further information concerning where palm oil plantations are located. If a mill is located in an area of high risk, they are able to contact the suppliers and establish a refined approach to sourcing palm oil, therefore lowering hazards. Other organisations such as Greenpeace have inaugurated methods of reducing the amount of unclean palm oil that many food products across the globe use. By allowing the public to pledge for brands to be certified as sourcing palm oil from non-destructive producers, they intend to increase transparency and as a result achieve decreased deforestation, peat and exploitations by the year 2020. Greenpeace has also designed a short animation that tells the tragic story of an orangutan known as “Rang-tan” of whom is forced away from her home in the forest by palm oil producers. Since the release of the video, Greenpeace has received over 1.3  million pledges from people across the globe fighting for companies to put a stop to dirty palm oil production.  

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However, it’s not as easy as it may seem for companies to make this switch. Greatly renowned businesses such as Cadbury have faced immense backlash after it was revealed that the company is, in fact, one of the most popular buyers of dirty palm oil. This is due to the fact that clean palm oil generally tends to be considerably more expensive, and so companies choose supplying markets with the needed stock over losing money. What many buyers of Cadbury found absolutely shocking, however, was the fact that in Australia, milk chocolate has no palm oil but the cream-filled selection does, whereas in the UK its vice versa. So, if Cadbury is supplying palm oil free variations to other countries, why are they unable to make a complete switch? Once this information had been disclosed, Melbourne Zoo immediately took to action by banning all Cadbury products from being sold within the premises. 

Overall, whilst the immensely negative impacts palm oil production have become greatly known, the expansion of plantation sites does not begin to lessen. The astounding number of orangutans and Sumatran species that we lose every day has been integrated as an accepted fact that society overlooks for they want to lock away their guilt. In addition to this, as humans continue to make hazardous changes to rainforests, the environment faces threats including loss of biodiversity and deforestation. However, many companies have begun taking steps towards clean oil palming with a determined goal to formulate successful sustainability strategies that may reduce these environmental impacts. 

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Bibliography:

Biomes n.d., What is palm oil and why the controversy?, accessed 4 March 2019, <http://biomes.global2.vic.edu.au/palm-oil/>. 

Britanica 2019, Rainforest ECOSYSTEM, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.britannica.com/science/rainforest>.

Greenpeace 2018, Save Rang-tan. End dirty palm oil., online video, August 13, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/what-we-do/forests/rang-tan/>. 

National Geographic n.d., Rainforest, Washington, D.C, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/rain-forest/>. 

NEPcon 2017, Indonesia Sumatra Palm Oil Risk Profile, United Kingdom, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.nepcon.org/sourcinghub/palm-oil/palm-oil-indonesia-sumatra>. 

SBS News 2013, What is palm oil and why the controversy?, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/explainer-what-is-palm-oil-and-why-the-controversy>. 

SPOTT 2016, Environmental impacts of palming, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/environmental/>. 

Statsica 2012, Production Volume of Palm Oil Worldwide, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.statista.com/statistics/613471/palm-oil-production-volume-worldwide/>. 

Unilever n.d., Transforming the palm oil industry, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living/reducing-environmental-impact/sustainable-sourcing/transforming-the-palm-oil-industry/>. WWF 2019, Endangered species threatened by unsustainable palm oil production, Washington, D.C, accessed 4 March 2019, <https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/endangered-species-threatened-by-unsustainable-palm-oil-production>.

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