I was in that plane, looking at the view from my window seat, we had started to descend and we were above Malaysia when suddenly I started seeing these plantations, thousand and thousands of trees, they had more like a palm tree shape. I couldn’t believe it when I realised it was a Palm Oil crop.

I have known about Palm Oil production and its devastating effects for long time, but being in that plane and seeing with my own eyes how huge these plantations were it was eye-opening. I gained a deeper level of awareness about this problem.

For that reason today I want to write a bit about palm oil. My goal is to raise awareness as I reckon many people still don’t know about it.

What’s Palm Oil

Palm Oil is a vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of a palm that grows in the tropics. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand are big producers and majority of the palm oil consumed around the world comes from these places.

This oil is in high demand because it is versatile, it has a mild flavour that doesn’t affect the taste of food, it is stable once it is processed so it can be used at high temperatures and most importantly is very cheap, therefore is the way to go for most manufacturers.

According to WWF, palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet and half of all packaged products these days contain it.

The Issues

This industry has grown dramatically in the last decades and they have become key part of the economy of the countries producing this oil. According to Wikipedia:

“Between 1962 and 1982 global exports of palm oil increased from around half a million to 2.4 million tonnes annually and in 2008 world production of palm oil and palm kernel oil amounted to 48 million tonnes. According to FAO forecasts by 2020 the global demand for palm oil will double, and triple by 2050.”

In simple terms, this high demand has caused a massive deforestation problem in areas that in the past were rich in biodiversity. These days tropical forests are being cleared to make room for these plantations.

I took some bad photos from the plane, this one is one of them. It doesn’t really show the immensity of the land that is being used for palm oil. And the worst part is that this area that I saw it is not even the main palm oil production zone in Malaysia. In places like Borneo, things seem to be even worse.

Palm Oil Plantation - Malaysia

Palm Oil Plantation – Malaysia

And of course this translates into a series of problems:

Environment: This rate of deforestation destroys valuable eco-systems which are so needed to combat carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Forest are the lung of the earth and yet they are banishing.

On top of that, the cheaper way for to clear the land for the plantations is through  “slash and burn”, basically starting dangerous fires. In 2015, big fires went out of control in Borneo, killing people, animals and destroying five million acres – over 25 percent of orangutan habitat according to OneGreenPlanet.

Animals: Forests are full of life, thousands of animals live there. These animals are being killed, injured or forced to move due to the deforestation. One of the endangered species is Orangutans. In Borneo alone  a study found that more than 100.000 orangutans have disappeared in the last 16 years. If you click on the article posted by The Conversation you’ll see what this number looks like.

Communities: Even when this industry provides employment, it has been linked to poor working conditions/payments, displacement of indigenous people and even child labour.

I think the following video covers the topic quite well:

What can we do?

First let’s clear this up: Palm Oil is used in many supermarket products, from processed food to personal care and cleaning products. Even without people knowing it they are probably consuming palm oil every single day.

Avoiding any product that uses palm oil (aka boycotting this industry) is easier said than done, here in Australia and many other countries it is not mandatory to include the word palm oil on the labels, so they can easily hide the ingredient saying is “vegetable oil”.

Also, according Palm Oil Investigations, this oil can be hidden in more than 200 ingredients in the supermarket.  See the full list here.

There is also a good debate about what’s the best way to go when it comes to stop supporting these practices described above. It seems if the word decided to stop using palm oil and replaced it with other oils, the environmental impact would be even worse. This is based on the fact that palm oil is a very productive crop, other oils need more land to produce the same amount.

These days there are also “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” which seems to be like a good idea to protect the environment and the workers, at least it is the intention. This could be a better alternative to ensure we are buying products that are responsible produced. Check the labels, usually certified products are proud to show it.

One good way to help you make better choices in the supermarket is installing an app in your phone. I have tried POI barcode scanner app before but for some reason is not currently working, this in my opinion was the easiest way to make informed decisions when shopping here Australia. I hope in the future the app is up and running again. Let’s keep an eye on it.

If you are in USA you could try “Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping” or even Buycott.

I personally buy very little items in the supermarket. I avoid buying processed ready-to-eat process food, I make my own soaps and other home-made personal care products, I try to buy natural brands that don’t use palm oil or use it from better sources.

Am I totally avoiding cheap palm oil? No, I doubt it, the ingredient is hidden in so many ways… But I am reducing its consumption and doing the best I can to stop supporting irresponsible companies.

It is not a simple problem, but I think if we try our best to reduce cheaply produced palm oil, collectively we can make a difference.

“The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”- Gifford Pinchot

That’s it for today. Let me know in the comments below if you knew about the palm oil problem and let me spread the message about this important topic.

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Thanks for reading,