A note on palm oil...

Cally Smith has endeavoured to live palm oil free for the past ten years. During this time she has been committed to educating others about the facts and effects of the palm oil industry which impacts all of us.

The problem with palm oil, is not particularly the oil itself, although it's not the healthiest of fats, but the disastrous environmental effects caused by its sourcing, and the situation made worse by the massive amounts now required to satisfy our insatiable demand.


Where does it come from?
Palm Oil is grown in the tropical rainforests of the world. Characterised by a warm and wet climate, this is the only climate that supports the growing of oil palm. Interestingly the world's rainforests have been called the 'Lungs of the Earth' or the 'Earths Medicine Cabinet', simply because there are so many ways the rainforest supports our life on Earth.

So what is palm oil, how is it sourced and why is it a problem?

Palm oil is an edible oil sourced directly from the fruit of the oil palm plant which is actually native to Africa. Oil palms, over many years, produce fruits from which the oil is extracted. The plum sized fruits take about five months to mature from pollination and are produced in large bunches. The fruit is fleshy and oily and each fruit contains a single seed, the palm kernel. As a guide, the annual production of a hectare of oil palm is around average10 tonnes of fruit yielding 4,000 kg of palm oil and 750 kg of seed kernels yielding 500 kg of palm kernel oil. Other parts of the plant are processed for livestock feed. Oil palms require a tropical rainforest climate in order to thrive, ie: constant high humidity and high temperatures. The cultivation of oil palm generally takes place on land which has been cleared of virgin rainforest, ie: forest and peatland is converted to palm plantation. Here lies the problem, as virgin rainforest is virtually irreplaceable in its entirety.

In the case of peat swamp rainforest found in Indonesian Borneo, here is the cultivation process: the swampy land must be drained, firstly to allow access for machinery and secondly to enable the forest to burn, this is done by digging a system of canals across the forest to let the swamp water drain away. The next part of the process is to log all the trees, some of which will be more valuable when sold than others. Once drained and cleared the remaining forest is then burnt to the ground, this is known as 'slash and burn'. The land will then be planted with oil palms in their thousands, over many hectares.

Deforestation in this way causes massive global air pollution just by burning the trees but also releases all of the carbon stored in the peat, back into the atmosphere, so the whole process causes multiple problems for our environment. The trees, plants, small and microscopic creatures will of course be destroyed by the fire almost immediately. The larger animals may be destroyed by the fire or displaced and left homeless and without food. Any animals left wandering about, by order of the palm oil company in charge, will be destroyed, and in the case of orangutans the older ones would be macheted, clubbed or shot and babies will be forcibly removed from their mothers and sold to the pet trade. Baby orangutans often have their hands cut off in order to remove them from their dead mother. It is worth noting that a baby orangutan would naturally stay with its mum for between 7 - 9 years, this is longer than any other mammal on the planet except a human, so this is a desperate situation for them. Animals such as Pygmy Elephants are now being poisoned to make sure they do not trample through the plantations. The Palm oil companies will pay a 'good' price to local workers to rid the land of any displaced animals. You can now understand why this is a problem and a shameful and tragic situation.

What about sustainable palm oil?

Back in 2004 major palm oil producers in co-operation with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund aka World Wide Fund for Nature) established the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) with the objective of promoting the growth and use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) known as green palm credits. Many manufacturers and retailers will tell you they are a member of the RSPO but in my experience this means very little as when questioned further, they can offer no proof that the palm oil they use is in any way sustainable. Even WWF have admitted that the palm credits are not being used to their fullest.

It is completely possible to grow oil palm without the conversion of virgin rainforest, without the deforestation. There are community growing schemes doing just that. So why isn't this happening all over? Probably because the problem is not really understood, no-one complains and it is easier to carry on without change, it's cheap to source illegally and of course so much palm oil is needed to satisfy our demand.

Retailers and consumers are at the end of the supply chain, so their choices can really make a difference towards seeing totally certified sustainable palm oil production. Producer > Manufacturer > Supplier > Retailer > Consumer. Our demands will make their way along the supply chain and eventually the producers and growers will have no choice but to adopt good practice. What we want is a no-deforestation policy. Time for rainforest habitat is running out.

For more information on Palm Oil read Cally’s full report