The Problem with Palm Oil

Few food crops illustrate the problems in the global food chain as well as palm oil. Squeezed from the tree’s plum-size bright red fruit, oil palms are remarkably efficient producers of food. Only sugar cane produces more calories of human food per acre. But this globally traded agricultural commodity that is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods takes a great toll — heart disease, rainforest destruction, threatened extinctions of animals, serious greenhouse emissions and human rights violations.

Rising consumer demand in China and India, both major producers of processed foods, has placed a premium on the food commodity replacing the often outlawed trans-fats. Government subsidies for biofuel production has sparked sky-rocketing prices and tension between farmers and producers on whether to use land to produce fuel or to cultivate food. Biofuels account for almost half the increase in worldwide demand last year representing seven percent of total consumption according to Oil World, a forecasting service in Hamburg, Germany. But the impact on much of the developing world is substantial. Families use palm oil an important source of calories. As prices continue to soar palm oil now represents one of the biggest cash outlays for poor households.

Not only do biofuels compete with food use but the industrial farming practices carry grave environmental and ecological concerns. Malaysia is already cutting down rain forests at more than triple the average rate of the rest of Asia. The destruction is concentrated in the highly biodiverse peatland forests on the island of Borneo, a new analysis of satellite data reveals resulting in the release of major greenhouse gases.

As tropical forests are being levelled to make way for oil palm plantations, the habitat for orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceroses and tigers are destroyed. Conservation groups conclude that without urgent intervention the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of Asia’s only great ape, within 12 years.

Anne B. Lasimbang, executive director of the Pacos Trust in the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo, said that while some indigenous people have benefited from selling palm oil that they grow themselves, many have lost ancestral lands to large plantation growers. And while Locals are displaced from their. Many communities battle for years to get back some of the community’s forest land but the time they succeed, much of the land and water supplies have degraded and polluted because intensive palm oil production relies on chemical pesticides.

In the West, large cosmetic companies and the fast food industry create an enormous demand for palm oil. American imports nearly doubled in the first 11 months of last year, raising demand by over 200,000 tons. Today palm oil is found in one in 10 products on supermarket shelves. This new darling of processed foods is now used in bread, crackers, chips, margarine, peanut butter and cereals as well as personal care and beauty products such as soap and lipstick.

Palm oil has been long regarded as unhealthy. But many companies claim its a healthier option to the dreaded trans fats. The truth is palm oil is high in saturated fat, as are butter, whole milk, ground beef and the skin from chicken. These fats should be limited just like trans fats. They clog arteries and can lead to heart problems. Small amounts of palm oil are safe. But cultivate conscious choice about the foods that contain it. Instead look for foods made with organic canola or olive oils.

Corporations Taking a Stand
Ethical shopping alone won’t change the behaviour of the palm oil industries. New rules are needed to hold companies accountable for the damage they do and new food policies need to be put into place by our federal governments.

In 2010 General Mills announced a comprehensive palm oil policy that puts them at the front of the pack when it comes to American companies addressing the problems with palm oil.

The company’s new policy respects Indigenous rights, protects rainforests and peatlands and sets a goal for sourcing 100 percent environmentally responsible palm oil by 2015.

In 2009 Unilever suspended all purchases from Sinar Mas, a key supplier of palm oil to India and China, after Greenpeace accused the Indonesian company of widespread illegal deforestation and peatland clearance — practices that release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US.

Mapping 10 Forested ‘Hot Spots’ New York Times April 2011
Over the last 8,000 years, forest cover on the planet has plummeted to around 13 million square miles from about 24 million square miles
Malaysian palm oil producers destroying Borneo peat forests faster than ever before. Mongabay Feb 2011
Rapid Destruction of Peat Forests: Environment 360
Rethink Food
The average consumer believes they are not very powerful – but the exact opposite is true. Corporations deliver what the consumer demands. The average meal purchased from your supermarkets travels 1500 miles to arrive at your dinner table. You can change the industrial food system with every bite.

Read The Label
If the saturated fat content is about 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will be palm oil.
Watch out for margarine in the ingredients list. It’s highly likely the margarine will have been derived from palm oil.
Additives and agents such as emulsifiers (E471 is a common one). Often it’s a small component of the overall product, but it too can be derived from palm oil.
Our government agencies are supposed to protect us. Tell them to enforce food safety standards.
Other Names for Palm Oil
Other names to keep an eye out for that could be derived from palm oil:

Cocoa butter equivalent (CBE)
Cocoa butter substitute (CBS)
Palm olein
Palm stearine
In non-food products like soaps and detergents, ingredients which may be derived from palm oil includes:

Elaeis guineensis
Sodium lauryl sulphate
Cetyl alcohol
Isopropyl and other palmitates
Stearic acid
Fatty alcohol sulphates