When we talk about problem crops, the conversation begins with palm oil production. Here we have a look at one of the most controversial plants on the planet.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil which is made from the fruit of oil palm trees.
Where is it made?
Indonesia and Malaysia make up for 85% of all palm oil production in the world.
Where can you find it?
Palm oil is in almost everything, and can be found in nearly 50% of packaged products found in supermarkets.
You will find palm oil in food products, beauty products, and everyday items from things like toothpaste, to lipstick. It’s also been known to be used in fuel.
Why is it so popular?
Palm oil is incredibly cheap and efficient to produce. 1 kilo of palm oil is roughly $2.
The plant is evergreen and can withstand most soil types, meaning it flourishes and produces throughout the year. The oil itself is hugely versatile, and has so many functions. It improves the shelf life of products, and is a natural preservative which is odorless and colorless. Globally, on average, we consume about 8 kilos of palm oil every year, per person.
So, what are the problems?
The problems with palm oil are human made. It is just a plant, but it is how and where we have grown the plant, which is the root of the problem.
What fundamentally has to change is the methods and practices which have become catastrophic to ruining ecosystems.
The way in which palm oil has typically been grown has caused vast amounts of environmental damage. Not to mention how it has ruined natural habitats of already endangered species .
On a human level there is evidence of exploitation of workers and child labour, and the devastating contributions greenhouse gases have had on climate change.
What are the challenges?
The most important point to address is money.
Palm oil is very cheap. It’s cheap to buy and even cheaper to produce. When it comes to buying palm oil responsibly against buying it cheaper, the majority currently go for the cheaper option. This same logic can be applied to every layer of sustainability, and is one of the core problems - similar to fast fashion.
Large markets such as India and China focus on price rather than the sustainability profile of a product. This has to change.
Companies and consumers alike have to change. Palm oil has the full potential to be produced sustainably, but different countries have varying government support around deforestation.
Complex supply chains present another issue because it’s difficult to know where it is coming from.
So, what are the solutions?
The fact that we have created this problem with palm oil, means that we have the ability to solve the issues with palm oil.
Companies, countries and consumers need to have a responsibility to face climate change. We need to understand what we are endorsing when we buy certain products, but also to learn about how we can lower our impact to make sure we are always working to be a part of the solution to our environmental and climate crisis.
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 2004 (RSPO), which set the standards for producing sustainable palm oil. This proves it can be done, and that we can continue to use this versatile super plant. What must come to a halt is the horrific practice that has created the devastating issues with palm oil production.