Palm Oil Hidden In Your Food
How much palm oil are you eating?
Palm oil has become nearly ubiquitous in processed foods, yet many people are unaware that they are eating foods containing palm oil – leading it to be referred to as the “investable ingredient.”
Head to your cabinets and find out. Likely, that palm oil is not from a sustainable source and can be linked back to the destruction of rainforests, the loss of endangered species habitat, and exploitation of rural farmers. Potato chips are great. Wrecking our planet is not.
What exactly is palm oil and what is its impact?
Origins and Impact
Palm oil originates from West Africa, were it has been traditionally harvested for thousands of years. In recent decades, however, palm production has exploded in Southeast Asia, primarily Indonesia, given the suitable climate. This climate is home to large expanses of rainforests and iconic animal species (notably: orangutans, rhinos, and elephants). To make way for palm fields, the forests must be cleared. Traditionally, forests were cleared using slash and burn techniques but that style of clearing has been largely banned as a result of uncontrolled fires and smoke pollution. Now, bulldozers are used to uproot the rainforest and prepare the land for palm.
The forests that are cleared contain high carbon stock areas filled with trees and bog systems. When palm is planted on a bog, the roots begin to overdraw water and the bog quickly dries out. Once dry, the bog releases carbon into the atmosphere, increasing total greenhouse gases.
Palm trees store carbon as they grow; yet they are unable to match the storage capacity of rainforests. On grassland, however, palm plantations can capture more carbon than existing flora. Palm if planted on grassland, could actually help to reduce atmospheric carbon – something we are in need of. As it stands now, however, the majority of pal is grown in place of rainforests and not on grasslands.
Sustainable Palm Oil
Certified palm oil is crude palm oil (CPO) that conforms to the standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO standards include guidelines for deforestation, social and labor rights, land rights, use of peat land, and greenhouse gas emissions. CPO is certified through an audit by an RSPO-accredited certifying organization. Certified CPO enters the market in three ways (segregated, mass balance, and book and claim).
Segregated palm oil splits certified and non-certified palm oil into two different production streams. Each is processed separately at different mills. This assures that 100% of the product produced from a given mill is either sustainable or non-sustainable palm oil.
With mass balance production, both certified and non-certified palm are milled together. The amounts of certified and non-certified palm oil are recorded and this allows the mill to certify the corresponding amount of end product as sustainable, even though it is actually a blend. It is difficult for consumers to trace back through the production cycle with the mass balance approach.
The book and claim system, operated by Green Palm, provides certificates to suppliers, equal to the amount of sustainable palm oil on hand. Suppliers can then go to the open market to sell these certificates and palm oil. With the certificate, the consumer has proof and record of purchasing certified palm oil.
As the Western world is slowly becoming aware of the environmental impact of unsustainable palm oil production, many food companies have been publicly pressured to shift certified palm oil. Producers who obtain certifications, therefore, are able to access the growing sustainable palm oil market.
The certified palm oil market, however, is very young and there is little price difference in traditional and sustainable palm oil, which does not reflect the premium costs incurred to producers.
Focus on the Farmer
The property rights within Indonesia are a class of traditional and legal rights. The local community has a large de facto stake in forested lands, given that more than 50 million Indonesians depend upon forests for their livelihood.
Post-colonial rule, the Indonesian government began to establish formalized land rights, with land either being state-owned or private. As structured, the government owns the vast majority of forested land.
The rights to use forestland are sold to private industries and individuals on five-year contract terms, after which the terms must be renegotiated. These short-term contracts can lead to a mentality of short-term profit seeking.
Given that local communities hold a traditional claim to the land, there have been clashes between palm oil producers and local communities. Between 2006 and 2010, there were a recorded 630 conflicts, which have been destructive and violent.
Involving local communities will reduce conflict and also help develop poor rural communities. There are many networks of smallholder farms that work with industry, selling their product to the industry on a contract basis. Working with industry opens up greater financing opportunities, reduce fertilizer and pesticide costs, and access to field management education.
Don’t be Part of the Problem
How much palm oil are you eating?
Each and every purchase we make is a vote in support of ‘something.’ While palm oil production happens halfway around the world, our daily choices have a big impact on rainforests abroad.
It has been shown that palm oil can be grown in a beneficial way to support local economies, preserve ecosystems, and reduce atmospheric carbon.
Yet, we are the deciding factor.