The way palm oil is framed as the villain in the story of the planet today would make way for some surprise when one learns of its humble origins. The plant, which is widely cultivated in plantations across continents but especially in southeast Asia, originated in western Africa. Locals found the oil valuable when dealing with skin bruises, but it was also a favourite with slave traders who would use it to make their slaves look ‘glossier’ when presenting them in the market. Either way, Africans had found the oil useful and it seems to have suited them well.
From there, the popularity of this oil only surged. The demand increased as Europeans started using it on their own skins, too. During the 1600s, the Europeans who had a peek into African practices and culture started hailing it as something that can do wonders for your skin strains and bruises. By the late 1700s, the oil had made its way into soaps – some suggest it was used as a cheaper replacement ingredient for tallow(fat). While this may have been the case, the use of palm oil made the soap fragrance relatively pleasant, and also made its colour more reddish, which may have led to this ingredient transitioning from a replacement to a staple.
Soon after palm oil started finding more and more use, the demand started increasing. The supply could not keep up. Moreover, since the oil needed to be supplied as a commercial ingredient, many wanted to produce it at lower costs. They started looking into cost-cutting methods as well as increasing supply. This was over a century ago. Our reality today is resultant of what happened next.
The need to meet demands at lower costs led to the changes being made to then-prevalent practices at various stages of production. This was achieved by the mid-1800s and then, palm oil started to find more use. As a result, palm cultivation and production were encouraged. After soaps, it started to find use in candles, margarine, and even as cooking oil.
Palm Oil In Your House
Imagine a multi-purpose product that can be made cheaper, albeit with a slight quality degradation. If you are guessing a proliferation of use, you would not be wrong.
Today, palm oil is present in almost everything that is commonly found in households around the world, or things that you can easily pick off a supermarket shelf. The first place you may start to look is your kitchen. Cooking oil, biscuits, cookies, chocolates, and bread, are some of the common things whose ingredient list you may want to take a look at.
You may also find it in the tub of ice cream you share with your family, or the packet of ramen that keeps you full when you don’t have time for a proper lunch. From here, you may want to take a look into your bathroom, especially your hair-care products such as shampoos and conditioners, your toothpaste, or even your washing powder or detergent.
Palm oil also finds use in some cosmetics, especially lipsticks, as it can resist high temperatures and allow for a smoother application. However, you may not see it presenting itself as ‘palm oil’ on every ingredient list.
When looking for palm oil in a product or on a label, you should be looking for:
– Palmitic Acid
– Palm Stearine/Stearate
– Stearic Acid
– Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
– Sodium Palm Kernelate
– Sodium Kernelate
– Palm Kernel
– Palm Kernel Oil
– Palm Fruit Oil
– Elaeis Guineensis (the scientific name for African oil palm)
– Hydrated/Hydrogenated Palm Glycerides
Some names on an ingredient list may or may not contain palm oil, depending on how they are produced. These include:
– Vegetable Oil
– Vegetable Fat
– Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
– SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulphate)
– SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate)
– Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate
– Ethyl Palmitate
– Octyl Palmitate
– Palmityl Alcohol
In its various forms, palm oil is hiding in all nooks and crannies of your house. So, should you do something about it? Is it harmful to your health? Why is palm oil bad?
Why Is Palm Oil Being Hated?
Palm oil is widely used across the world today. It is present in various forms and is available easily. Until a few decades ago, palm oil was fairly common as a single-ingredient cooking oil option, especially in poverty-ridden populations, as it was cheap.
So, why are we supposed to hate it now? Let’s start with the fact that the real villain isn’t the product itself. The oil was historically considered good for the skin in African cultures. Even today, most of its forms are at least not harmful for human consumption, if not beneficial.
The problem with palm oil starts even before it becomes palm oil. The demand for palm oil has only increased with time, since its discovery by the slave traders. Ever since these times, there has been an effort to increase production, which translated to increasing cultivation of the plant.
As of 2017, palm oil plantations cover an area of 18.7 million hectares (roughly between the sizes of Syria and Senegal), of which almost 13 million hectares are in south-east Asia alone. These plantations are concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia, but can also be found in Nigeria, Thailand, and Colombia. The plant was traditionally grown in western Africa and needs a tropical climate with water-abundant land for favourable growth.
Global palm oil production has increased from 4.5 million tonnes in 1980 to 70 million tonnes in 2014. This demand is projected to grow at a rate of 1.7% per year, at least until the year 2050.
To meet these increasing demands, production at costs as low as possible had to be ramped up. This means more land had to be brought under cultivation. This land for palm cultivation, especially across south-east Asia, Africa, and Latin America, has been prepared by deforestation.
In these regions, oil palm cultivation is one of the major reasons for deforestation today. Deforestation in these tropical regions, especially at this scale, has a severe impact on the land as well as the flora and fauna of the region. The rich biodiversity of these areas is severely threatened by it. The declining population of orangutans in Indonesia is often highlighted in these conversations. A 2018 study suggested that “deforestation and industrial oil palm and paper pulp plantations are responsible for about 9% (14,000 individuals) of the total loss of orangutan abundance”. It further added that if plantations are well managed, alongside the maintenance of adjacent forests, it may help with the conservation of the wildlife, such as orangutans.
The loss of rich, tropical biodiversity is only a part of the problem. Since a large number of these plantations are not managed well and do not implement sustainable practices, it has been contributing to water pollution, air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Apart from this, it also has a direct impact on human life in the areas. As a lot of the local communities in these areas lose direct access to the forest due to plantations, many of them lose part of their livelihoods and culture. Furthermore, deforestation also adds to human-wildlife conflicts.
Oil palm plantations also require labour which, in an ideal picture, would mean employment for the locals. However, this does not translate into reality. Firstly, this extensive labour requirement is said to draw away from other sectors, leading to a labour shortage in areas such as local food production. Secondly, despite efforts to ensure otherwise, there have been reports of labour abuses on such plantations, including child labour and the use of trafficked labour. According to International Labor Rights Forum, “The palm oil industry– led by household brand names such as Unilever, Kraft, IKEA, and McDonald’s– has known that these human rights violations have ‘tainted’ its products for years.”
What Can We Do?
Palm oil production has increased rapidly over the past few decades and in an unsustainable fashion. A layperson today may be using it without even realising it. It is present in our everyday essentials.
As mentioned before, palm oil – the product – is not entirely the problem, but only a part of it. The cheap product is, even today, an important ingredient for many. The bigger problem here, arguably, is the lack of sustainable practices in palm oil cultivation and production.
An individually dramatic step such as entirely quitting palm oil together may help you feel ethically stable, but neither is it truly sustainable nor would it achieve what you would want it to. Instead, it may help to swap your palm oil-based products for alternatives that do not use palm oil. While this may be difficult to do, it is a good start.
Furthermore, it is important to hold industries that support exploitative practices, responsible. Even small steps from big names that manufacture our essentials can start something that would help the cause.
When mentioning palm oil today, it is often done either with disgust or with a lack of awareness. Understanding why palm oil and palm products are a problem can help with understanding why it is being villainised, and how to take the conversation in a more meaningful direction.
I am a simple writer who wishes to use her skill to create more awareness about the planet that offers us life.