Palm oil, a synonymical crop with deforestation and conflicts within the community in Southeast Asia, has now been making its way more rapidly into the Brazilian Amazon, and over the past years has been spreading vastly.
Yes, that’s correct, one of the world’s largest tropical rainforests, also known as “the lungs of the earth” is experiencing deforestation from logging and palm oil expansion.
Palm oil is an issue that is more commonly spoken about in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that account for more than 80% of global production.
As the palm oil trade expands, we are faced with a huge increase in tropical deforestation, threatening biodiversity, climate change and even human rights issues.
The question arises; can palm oil be sustainable?
According to research reported in Mongabay by Roberto Gatti, certified productions of palm oil do not differ much from non-certified ones and sometimes, even show higher levels in terms of percentage of tree removal, habitat degradation, fires or other tree damages.
Until the environmental costs of palm oil production are reflected in its price, palm oil may still dominate the market.
So, do alternatives mean more deforestation?
The impact on tropical forest resources have attracted attention worldwide and this has led conscious consumers turning to responsible consumption and some brands opting for new alternatives which include diversification in oils, algae and even food waste products. In the last couple of years, there has been more innovation in this space.
With palm oil being one of the most sought after commodities, clearly there is demand for innovation and alternatives.
One of the most discussed debates is coconut vs palm oil.
Coconuts are a factor that has threatened 66 species, while oil palm has threatened over 321 species.
According to the FAOSTAT database, although coconut oil is not exempt from any damage to the environment, its threat to the ecosystem and biodiversity is much less than palm oil is.
Unfortunately due to the rise in demand for palm oil, expansion has increased affecting other rainforests including those in Brazil.
The Amazon is the world’s largest intact rainforest; over the past two decades, more than 20% has been lost due to human activity.
This leaves the homes of thousands of species, animals, insects, plants, and trees destroyed, as well as the rights of Indigenous reserves threatened.
During my experience in Brazil in the years 2017-2020, I came across several Indigenous tribe members who narrated their heartbreaking stories to me, as well as informing me on the palm oil situation in Brazil.
It was reported that Indigenous tribes who rely on basic natural resources, such as river water and fruit trees are being stripped of these.
Apart from palm oil plantations accelerating the loss of the natural habitats and resources upon which Indigenous tribes and animals depend on, I’ve been told that palm oil companies were made to sign agreements that there would be no palm oil plantations within 10 kms of Indigenous reserves.
However, palm oil companies do not comply with the regulations and many tribes have reported that most palm oil plantations start within 100 meters from their Indigenous reserves.
Indigenous tribe members also reported that Brazilian palm oil companies throw palm oil waste into the rivers, contaminating the water and therefore leaving it unsuitable for consumption. Animals and humans that rely on this water to survive, are now forced to drink the contaminated water, resulting in all types of diseases and even death.
The pesticides among other poisonous substances that are used in the process of cultivating palm oil are linked to illnesses, hormonal disorders and diseases that once upon a time, never existed.
As consumers, we use products that contain palm oil in our everyday life, but our reliance on it is costing us our rainforests. Rainforests that are home to many endangered species, such as the Orangutan. We must heavily minimise our intake of palm oil and reduce the demand of the supply.
If we as consumers don’t demand more sustainable alternatives soon, the products we consume in our everyday lives will immensely contribute to the loss and destruction of the worlds’ rainforests.
Another way to help grow the demand for sustainable products is by supporting small businesses that are committed to sustainability.
Tell your friends and family about these businesses or write a positive review on their social media channels and website. This support can help them grow and increase sustainable consumption.
Looking at the bigger picture, we have to start understanding that it’s not only about which products are more sustainable than others, but also which companies are more sustainable.
In order to be able to consume products that have less of an impact on the environment, we should try to reduce our palm oil usage where possible or support the move towards alternatives.
Another question then arises; is coconut oil sustainable?
There’s no doubt that every product has an environmental impact. The question is, how much of an impact does it have on the environment?
There are many reasons to choose a more eco-friendly alternative to palm oil; let’s go through some of them:
Throughout the process of palm oil production, countless pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers among other toxic substances are required due to the mass production. On the other hand, coconuts are more resilient when produced sustainably, thus resulting in not much need for pesticides and poisonous products.
According to Mongabay, a fully grown palm oil tree can bear fruit up-to an average of 25 years, whilst a coconut palm-tree up-to an average of about 60 years.
Palm oil produces only oil and kernel, whereas many parts of the coconut and its tree, can be used in different ways;
-The water can be drunk, the sap can create a sweetener.
-The wood can be used in building and construction.
-The husks can be used to make rope, mattresses, among many other things.
-The crude form of the oil can be used in the production of soap.
-The dried, white flesh inside the coconut can be eaten.
For more reading:
It’s important to be aware of which possible products contain palm oil. More than 50% of all products contain palm oil derivatives. To assist you in your journey of minimising consumption, follow these resources:
+ Orangutan Alliance
+ Palm Oil Investigations
+ Products without Palm Oil
Here you can find Orangutan Alliance palm oil free certification on more products, as well as up to date research on palm oil, thus making your palm oil free journey easier.
Lucey Porch, Head of Compliance at Orangutan Alliance was interviewed this month on the Eco Impacters podcasts and speaks on the importance of diversifying the vegetable oil market, and spreading the load from different vegetable sources. You can listen to the podcast here via Spotify or Apple.
Every action counts. Every person makes a difference. Together, we can make a difference.