The global demand for palm oil is increasing at such an alarming rate that we are rapidly destroying the planet in which we live. But… could it be so simple that careful supermarket shopping could help to save not only the forests and wildlife, but the human race and the planet itself?
Palm oil is an extremely popular vegetable oil used in over 50% of all products, most commonly found in hundreds of food items, as well as cosmetics, cleaning agents, and is even used in biodiesels. But as the demand for palm oil increases, what impact does this have on the tropical forests, the biodiversity found there and the global climate?
Did you know that every year… an area the size of 300 football fields is being cleared in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia!?… No, you didn’t? Good, because it’s not true. In fact, an area the size of 300 football fields is being cleared every hour of the day!! That’s 6 fields a minute - all for the production of one vegetable oil - palm oil.
Over the past decade, global production of palm oil has doubled and is expected to double again by 2020. Although Oil Palms are originally from Western Africa, they can survive anywhere with sufficient heat and rainfall, therefore Southeast Asia is now the lead producer and exporter of palm oil. Indonesia particularly has been named as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records; and largely due to deforestation the country is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The rapid increasing demand for palm oil has caused substantial expansion of plantations throughout the forests of Southeast Asia and Africa, this has in turn caused concern for environmental and social impacts. Palm plantations are progressing further into forest areas threatening the rich biodiversity in these ecosystems. Orangutans are particularly suffering from such damage, with palm oil being their main threat. In the palm oil industry Orangutans (one of our closest relatives, sharing 97% of their DNA with humans) are considered pests. During the process of deforestation, Orangutans are often run over by heavy machinery, beaten to death, set on fire or buried alive. Being extremely inquisitive animals, Orangutans often wander into palm oil plantations. This will usually result in the adults being killed and the babies being sold into the pet trade or entertainment industry. Being a key-stone species, Orangutans and the rainforest need each other in order to survive. In the rainforest, every 5 Organutans per square kilometer can help to sustain 5 species of Hornbill, 15 species of Lianas, 50 species of fruit tree and many more. But sadly scientists believe that they will be extinct in as little as 3- 12 years if habitat destruction does not stop, and most of their jungle habitat will be gone in around 20 years.
Not only are animals losing their habitats, but the roads that are being constructed are exposing the forests to animal smugglers and poachers. These subjected species are now only found living in fragmented areas of the remaining forests.
The production of palm oil is also causing devastating effects for our global climate. In order to make room for oil palms, plantation workers set fire to all remaining trees, shrubs and debris producing vast quantities of smoke pollution toxic to the Earth. This is believed to be the second biggest greenhouse gas contributor in the world.
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the World’s leading organisation promoting the production of sustainable palm oil. The association sets regulations for greener palm oil production and encourages the industry to expand in ways to not cause social conflict. Now 40% of the World’s palm oil producers are members of RSPO, including well-known brands such as Unilever, Cadburys, Nestle and Tesco. For a full list of members, see www.rspo.org.
The oil palm tree produces more edible oil per hectare than any other oil producing plant making it an important element for feeding our planet. this therefore makes it difficult to produce an alternative, and is a conceivable reason for why so many environmental activists support RSPO.
Greenpeace, on the other hand, are one of the more critical organisations on the topic of palm oil and believes that RSPO is creating an illusion for ‘sustainable’ palm oil and therefore justifying the industry’s expansion. They also state that although so many companies are RSPO members, deforestation is still occurring, and these members are not taking any steps to avoid the worst practices of the trade. “We’re not against palm oil or the palm oil industry. What we are against is any palm oil that comes from plantations converted from forest and peatland areas.”
A very important thing to know is that palm oil is only a temporary product without a long-term sustainable solution. Oil palm plantations will only last for around 20-50 years before the soil is completely ripped of all vital nutrients and the trees can no longer produce fruit. By purchasing products containing unsustainable palm oil, you are aiding the destruction of rainforests, wiping out species, and creating a significant ecological disaster. Not only are we destroying the lives of orangutans and other animals, but we are destroying the human race, without rainforests we cannot survive.