Palm oil: cheap, easy, dangerous?

If you ever read the labels on packaged food boxes or hygiene products, chances are you will see palm oil listed in the ingredients. It is an ingredient that looks innocent enough, because it’s name is a plant we all know and is not some chemical we can’t pronounce or that has more letters than we can count.

An oil made from the fruit of palm trees, palm oil is used in a wide range of products. Everything from processed foods to toothpaste to biodiesel fuel uses the saturated vegetable fat. It is cheap and easy to grow and that, mixed with it’s range of uses, keeps palm oil in high demand.

Today, palm oil is grown in tropical areas such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and Colombia. But, the plant is native to West Africa, where in countries such as Benin, Kenya and Ghana it is still produced.

While production of the oil is said to have helped millions escape poverty in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, in the past decade there have been growing concerns that cultivating palm oil comes at a great cost to the environment, to traditional societies and to human health.

As society becomes more conscious of environmental sustainability, global poverty and what is in our food, it is important to take a closer look at palm oil for the many unsuspecting ways in which it touches us all.

Palm oil and its effects on the environment

In 2009, Indonesia was the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil. One of the major companies operating in Indonesia is Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART). SMART manages plantations which cover a total area of about 135,500 hectares in Indonesia. The trees on these plantations yield 20.9 tonnes of fruit per hectare, which is a lot of palm oil. In a report released at the end of September, Greenpeace International accused SMART of destroying primary rainforest, a rainforest which was previously untouched by humanity, by slash and burn methods.

This is done by first cutting down large areas of trees, which are hundreds of years old and then setting deliberate fires to clear the land.

“Deforestation globally contributes to 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions,” says senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, Stephanie Goodwin. She also alleges that not only is SMART clearing primary rainforest, they are also clearing peatland, a carbon-rich soil made up of dead plants, which takes decades to form.

“You’re not just cutting down trees and having those carbon emissions, you’re also getting carbon emissions from burning off a bunch of the carbon in the peat itself,” Goodwin explaines. CO2 is a greenhouse gas which environmentalists say contribute to global warming. “The Indonesian government has a law saying they cannot do any land conversion on peatland and that is what they’re doing right now,” explains Goodwin.

Concordia’s department of geography, Planning and Environment professor David Oswald also warns that rainforest depletion is putting stress on the diversity of species in the Borneo rainforest. It is especially pressing for the orangutan, which is already endangered.

The World Wildlife Fund website states that, “Habitat destruction and fragmentation is by far the greatest threat to this species. This problem is caused by commercial logging, and forest clearance for oil palm plantations and agriculture.”

The social side of things

The palm oil industry has created many jobs in developing countries but there are concerns that the costs to traditional societies, such as those in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, outweigh the economic benefits that the industry brings.

In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, traditional economies do not function in the same way as waged societies do in the West. People practice subsistence agriculture and exchange is a custom based on reciprocity. Introducing these traditional societies to jobs and money changes the whole social fabric of a community.

“It really affects [their] traditional economies,” says Christine Jourdan, a professor in Concordia’s department of sociology and anthropology. “It offers different types of opportunities for employment that did not exist before and which local people are very happy to have access to.”

Jourdan explains that the indigenous people there are happy for the creation of jobs because of the pressure to modernize and adapt to globalization, but the problems lie in the fact that the plantation jobs are unspecified, labour-intensive, and low paid.

“It’s a problem because they need money so much and there is no alternative. Somehow they are trapped into being happy with that,” she says. According to Jourdan, the average oil palm plantation worker is earning $300 per month Solomon, which equates to about $50 CDN.

“It brings a salary to people who finally want to leave subsistence agriculture and move into a waged labour force,” explains Jourdan. “So that creates that opportunity, but there are so many social costs attached to that because its not enough money to live properly.”

Traditional societies soon become dependent on the industry. Subsistence agriculture is replaced by store-bought foods and traditional land is bought up by the company and covered with the cash crop. She also explained that the men may have to leave the community for periods of time to go work on the plantations, changing the family dynamic and interfering with tradition and custom.

A threat to human health

“[Palm oil] is very bad for the health because it’s full of saturated fats,” says Jourdan. “In places like the Solomons or Papua New Guinea, the only oil that’s available in small shops, in canteens around villages is palm oil and they have no choice [but to use it].”

She explains that the fact that people in developing countries have no choice is precisely what puts their health at risk

“In Canada, first we have alternative choices, and we are constantly being bombarded by information from the government that tells us not to eat that or not to eat that,” says Jourdan.

This health risk is confirmed by the World Health Organization, who in 2003 reported that palm oil raises overall blood cholesterol levels. Palm oil, which is made up of saturated fats, raises the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the blood. LDL, which is known as the “bad’ cholesterol, can slowly build up in the inner walls of one’s arteries. This buildup is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Progress seen in sustainable production of palm oil

Environmental risks mixed with a global call by environmental groups led to the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO was formed in 2004 with the goal of creating a sustainable way to grow and use oil palm products. The organization gives certification to those companies who comply with RSPO standards of company transparency, environmental sustainability, protection of wildlife, and health and safety precautions for their employees.

Late last month, the RSPO’s Grievance Panel addressed claims that SMART, which is owned by Golden Agri Resources, had allegedly breached the RSPO’s Code of Conduct. This came weeks after U.S. fast food chain Burger King announced that it would stop buying palm oil from the company. Other corporations that have dropped SMART are British-Dutch food and hygiene product corporation Unilever, U.S. food and beverage corporation Kraft, and Swiss food corporation Nestle?. The four companies stated their reason for discontinuing business with SMART is due to alleged environmental damage to the Borneo rainforest caused by the cultivation of oil palm in Indonesia.

Of course, not everyone would agree that palm oil is a threat. Especially not SMART, who have posted numerous press releases to their website in recent weeks which deny the concerns brought up by Greenpeace and Burger King. Still, it is important to delve deeper into topics which often go unnoticed, such as palm oil.

“You need to follow it all the way through the supply chain,” said Oswald. “It’s a value. If we value these things then we should be aware of them.”


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