Did you know that almost half of the goods on our supermarket shelves contain palm oil? Palm oil is an edible oil derived from pulping the fruit of oil palm trees. Palm oil and its derivatives – listed as vegetable oil, edible oil, palmate, or palmitic acid on product labels – are used to make everything from chocolates and ice creams to noodles and shampoos. While palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit, it shouldn’t be confused with coconut oil which is derived from the kernel or meat of the coconut palm. But is palm oil healthy?
India is the top importer of palm oil, consuming around 15 percent of the world’s total production. Unfortunately, the widespread use of palm oil in processed food, cleaning products, and cosmetics, poses several environmental challenges.
Palm oil is the world’s leading cause of rainforest destruction and is driving wildlife species like the Sumatran orangutan to the brink of extinction in Indonesia.
Given the upper hand that palm oil has over other vegetable oils in terms of cost and versatility, it’s no surprise that palm oil demand has sky rocketed.
The rising demand has resulted in the clearing of large swathes of tropical forests to make way for oil palm plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa, and Latin America. Indonesia and Malaysia are the leading producers of palm oil accounting for nearly 80 percent of the global production. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), rainforests equivalent to 300 football fields are destroyed every hour in the region. At this rate, Indonesia will be left with only 2 percent of the forest areas by 2022.
Once the trees are cut down, carbon-rich peat land comprising swampy layers of partially decayed vegetation below the forests is burned. This releases massive amounts of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and spreads harmful haze across the landscape. Large scale deforestation and pollution from blazing forest fires make palm oil a major driver of human induced climate change.
Indonesia’s rainforests have the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems inhabited by a number of endangered plant and animal species – the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, rhinos, pygmy elephants and the world’s largest flower Rafflesia. The threat to these from deforestation is huge. Most of the landscape is destroyed and animals are either killed, displaced, or captured for illegal pet trade. Expansion of oil palm plantations has also led to the forceful eviction of forest-dependent native people resulting in human rights violations.
Not all palm oil is bad. If it is produced responsibly, the industry can still benefit consumers without endangering valuable forest reserves and wildlife species. The answer to global environmental challenges is the adoption of sustainable methods for palm oil production.
While more and more companies are now committing to zero deforestation policies and best practices that avoid conversion of forests, you – as a consumer can follow these quick tips: