Saturday, September 29, 2007

Palm Oil

What is palm oil anyway?

You may never have heard of palm oil but you have almost certainly bought plenty of it. It's the most widely-used edible oil in the world, and is found in many processed foods (it is estimated than one in ten supermarket foods contains palm oil) as well as soap, shampoo, make-up and toothpaste. It is also becoming an important biodiesel crop.

So what?

Well palm oil is pressed from the fruit of the tropical palm tree. Vast areas of rainforest are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. It is considered to be the main threat to orangutans, which could become extinct in twelve years due to palm oil. The Sumatran tiger and the Asian rhino are also critically endangered due to rainforest clearance and palm oil is the main culprit. Not to mention the bitter irony of felling our rainforests, those massive ancient carbon sinks, in a bid to grow biofuel which is touted as a solution to climate change.

What's more, palm oil is bad for you. It's one of the few vegetable oils to contain high levels of saturated fat. That's what's so appealing about it, if you're a food manufacturer. It's cheap and it's easy to handle, being solid (or semi solid) at room temperature. But saturated fat is bad for your heart. Yet another reason to avoid the stuff, as if the orangutans weren't reason enough.

What can I do?

VeggieGlobal, the animal and environmental website, says

If you were making conscious efforts to buy "dolphin friendly" tins of tuna, then it's now time to think twice before buying foods or cosmetics containing palm oil

But if it is so ubiquitous, how can you do that? Even reading the ingredients label isn't a sure-fire way to tell if a product contains palm oil, as it is often listed just as "vegetable oil".

But there is good news. In July this year, Asda announced that it would not sell products containing palm oil unless the suppliers could prove that it comes from sustainably-run plantations. They have banned all palm oil from Borneo and Sumatra, the worst affected regions, and hopes to have eliminated all unsustainable palm oil from 500 products within a year. Meanwhile The Body Shop has established its own sustainable organic supplier in Colombia.

So here's what you can do:

  1. You can shop at Asda and the Body Shop, or you can write to your usual retailers and ask them why they aren't banning unsustainable palm oil as well

  2. You can write to your member of parliament and tell her about your concerns over palm oil

  3. You can visit the Palm Oil Action website and learn more about the issue (and see beautiful pictures of orangutans)

  4. Find 4 products containing palm oil or vegetable oil and write to the manufacturer

  5. Print out 5 copies of the Palm Oil Action brochure and hand them out to your friends, or better still forward it by email and save a tree.

10 comments:

donna said...

thanks for giving us such great info as usual. i noticed in your profile that you are a lecturer- do you teach subjects that are related to those you blog about?

Melanie Rimmer said...

Not really. I lecture in psychology and sociology.

Joanna said...

Melanie, as always, spot on. I have been reading labels for palm oil for over two years, since my husband had his heart attack, as it's a horrible saturated fat. It's in EVERyTHING, even things you couldn't imagine why they'd put it (cheap, I suppose). Peanut butter is unbelievably hard to buy, so we often end up with almond butter. In the end, it makes you realise that if you want to control what you eat, you need to cook it yourself. And then you realise that that makes for way less pollution - I mean, one plastic bag for every loaf of bread? Doesn't seem sensible. Sorry to rant - but I think palm oil is just about the most horrible of all the horrible things the food industry has foisted on us.

Anonymous said...

I think the writer should really get the facts correct on the Oil Palm Industry and the Oil Palm Tree. First of all the oil palm is not bad for your health, infact it is incredibly healthy for you. It is not a trans fat, and is extremely high in Vit A, E. It was the soybean industry that was preoccupied by the rapid growth of the oil palm industry and as a result around 20 years ago spread false claims.

Oil Palm is also a very efficient crop, it produces 10 x per hectare more oil than any other crop thus large amounts of land are not required to produce the same amount of oil. It also engages a healthy solution to a socio-economical problem within these
developing nations.

The Oil Palm is also a tree and grows for over 50 years and as a tree is an effective way for carbon sequestion. The trees act as carbon sponges. For example: How can planting 3 million trees on 20,000 ha of non-forested land be bad for the environment. As well as this, it does not need buring or digging up every year.

In addition the oil palm industry is the only industry that has a roundtable sustainable body, which is promoting and monitoring excellence in sustainability. Most of the companies are now adopting ISO14001 and 9000.

It has unfortunate that the rainforest has deminished, but lets look at the other industries as well, such as the sugar cane industry in Brazil, nothing is mentioned on rainforest. Lets talk about the illegal logging. This industry is responsible for the cutting down of the rainforest, in most cases they do sell it on and sure, the oil palm industry tend to go on to purchase them.

In all industries there will be the small percentage of companies acting dishonestly or poorly but the oil palm industry is one of the only industries that is cleaning up its act. You are worried about the environment then lets talk about wasted electricity with all the computers and lights left on in the offices in every major city.

20 years ago people were burning peat in the UK as well as around the world, in their house fires, and most people were unaware of the impact to the environment. Where was this peat coming from. People learn, industries learn.

I find it interesting that people do not realise that instead of this anti-oil palm saga, that a more positive approach is not adopted. Developing nations always want to become like rich nations and as a result will continue unless a better alternative is available, such as paying them to keep the rainforest. We should be supporting this industry to become more sustainable by demanding that the oil palm is grown on non-forested lands and that the oil palm industry holds the relevant sustainable qualifications, but to not buy oil palm means buying a less healthy and less efficient source of oil.

Macy said...

Indeed. The Walrus Magazine just published this article on how trans fats are endangering wild elephants in Borneo.

check it out: http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2008.03-conservation-fat-food-trans-palm-oil/

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