Diet and nutrition, Market

Palm oil in food products Part 2: palm oil and environment

05/07/2016 palm oil and environmental impact


In our last article about palm oil, we deepened the link between the oil and the human health. Now, we talk about the impact that the palm oil industry have on the environment.

In particular, the major problem is that palm oil is linked to deforestation of rain forest, the loss of biodiversity and the displacement of local communities in order to make way for palm oil plantations.

Palm oil’s big problem has always been the jungle-covered terrain where the tree is grown. It’s native to Africa, but Malaysia and Indonesia now produce 85 percent of the world’s supply. The most threatened ecosystems by expansion of oil palm plantations are rainforests and peatlands. Peatlands are swampy areas where the soils are made of peat — decomposed vegetation. Peat acts as a sponge, soaking up water and helping prevent floods. It also stores large amounts of carbon. When peatlands are drained, the stored carbon reacts with air to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas. The dry peat then becomes highly flammable, increasing the risk of large-scale fires when plantation developers use fire to clear land and burn agricultural waste. Greenhouse gas emissions also result when rainforest is cleared for oil palm plantations. New pal oil plantation are negative for biodiversity of the land that destroy the rain forest, plants and animals which must either move or perish. Oil palm plantations are not good for wildlife and endangered species like the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the pygmy elephant of Borneo, and the Sumatran tiger are all threatened by development for oil palm.

What can we do to support a sustainable market of palm oil

Replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil) is not the right answer: it would mean that much larger amounts of land would need to be used, since palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. The use of other vegetable oils anyway seems like a practical solution, it would actually create similar, if not larger, environmental and social problems. A growing number of organizations in the palm oil industry have made commitments to adopt more sustainable practices. The result of this transition is an increasing amount of palm oil in our products produced and sourced in a sustainable way. And demand is growing: by 2022, the global market is expected to be more than double, in value up to $88 billion.

Different environmental groups have pushed for change: in front line there is Greenpeace against the world’s largest palm oil traders and they succeed to obtain that Wilmar International signed a 100 percent zero-deforestation agreement in 2013. Public outcry also moved has European Union to change its labeling laws in 2014, making it easier to spot palm oil on ingredient lists. Companies who want support a sustainable production and use of palm oil can look for a seal of approval from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

RSPO believes that using the trademark on products will be central to raising awareness and driving demand: in countries such as France and Sweden, consumers are very conscious about food products and in the case of palm oil public concern over the use of palm oil is high, both from sustainability and health point of view.  The information on the label is now there and it is a first important step to encourage the public consciousness increase.

If it’s grown sustainably, palm oil production can benefit local communities, and help to protect valuable species and forests. By using sustainable practices, farmers can increase their income by making more palm oil from less land. Next month, in our article palm oil part 3, we’ll discuss about the social impact that palm oil industry have.



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