What’s palm oil and what’s the problem?

65% of global vegetable oil trade is palm oil, and it’s estimated to be present in 50% of all products in an averge weekly shop. However because it’s usually sold as an ingredient in a product rather than on its own, many people are not aware that it even exists, let alone that it’s a major environmental problem.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil made from oil palm trees. It’s very cheap and is used widely in food, cosmetics, soaps and other products.

In theory these trees can produce oil extremely efficiently, using less land and fewer resources than other vegetable oil crops such as rapeseed or olive. So it could be a great thing for the earth, but why isn’t it?

The problem is that since it’s so cheap and efficient, demand for palm oil has skyrocketed, and this has led to a massive growth in palm oil plantations, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, which produce around 85% of the world’s palm oil. This quick and underregulated growth has caused huge swathes of deforestation in tropical rainforests, which is bad news for wildlife as it reduces habitats, and also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Yikes!

What is ‘sustainable palm oil’?

While this is all terrible, the obvious first reaction of a palm oil boycott is not the answer. If palm oil production stopped, alternative vegetable oil sources would need to be found, and none of these come close to palm oil when it comes to efficiency. This is why the smart money supports the opportunity of working with industry to produce palm oil under better conditions.

An international standard for assessing the sustainability of palm oil production has been developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Palm oil that is certified to these standards ensure that it is produced under fair labour conditions, does not rely heavily on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and does not cause deforestation.

The Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge

Chester Zoo has produced a bunch of resources to help you take the Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge and support sustainable palm oil production. This includes a Palm Oil Shopping List which is a guide to the brands who have committed to sustainable palm oil sourcing. Their website also has tons more information and details of how else to get involved so take a minute, read up on the issues, and get involved in the global fight against unsustainable palm oil!

Cormac Cleary

Cormac Cleary

Sustainable Food Assistant at University of Westminster and Aramark
Cormac Cleary

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