You cook in it. You bathe in it. It’s on your skin and in your blood, hiding in your favorite bag of chips, lipstick, chocolate, detergent and cooking oil. I’m talking about palm oil, a simple, ubiquitous ingredient present in most things we consume and put on our skin.
In India, it is estimated that 50% of packaged food products, from ice cream to instant ramen, contain palm oil. Yet, chances are, you may not even have heard about it. Or the huge ecological losses it’s responsible for.
An extremely high yielding crop, palm oil is derived from the fruits of trees called African oil palms. The trees, which are native to West Africa, produce clusters of orange red fruit that are processed at diesel-powered mills to extract palm oil. The oil usually travels to a refinery post-extraction, from where it’s shipped across the world.
Extremely cheap to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, has a high melting point and is extremely resistant to rancidity. They also produce more oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil equivalent making its use extremely desirable for use in the food, skincare and cosmetic industries.
In fact, 70% of the world’s cosmetic and skincare products contain palm oil and its derivatives.
With over 1.3 billion people, India is both the world’s largest consumer as well as the biggest importer of palm oil. Being cheap, its use remains fundamental to the country’s challenge of providing inexpensive food to an increasing population with limited agricultural land.
Palm oil may not cost much to produce, but it exacts a high price on the environment. Nearly 90% of the world’s palm oil is produced on a few large islands in the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia—the two largest producers of palm oil in the world. And every hour in Southeast Asia, palm oil plantations clear 300 football fields of forest for it.
This unsustainable palm oil expansion has been and continues to cause massive deforestation, widespread toxic pollution, severe spikes in CO2 emissions, a slew of civil rights violations, and has led numerous species of animals to the brink of extinction, including the orangutan—our closest living relative.
Indonesia, which is currently the biggest producer of palm oil, had the highest rate of deforestation in the world. Malaysia isn’t far behind. As the second-largest palm oil-producing country, 15% of its total land area is now used by palm oil plantations.
Palm oil plantations alone have catapulted Indonesia into becoming one of the worst CO2 emitting countries in the world. The haze even impacts neighbouring countries, blanketing entire cities in a thick smog of choking air, a phenomenon now referred to as the Southeast Asian haze.
Deforestation is occurring all around the world, so why does this particular industry matter, you wonder? Because palm oil has quickly become the world’s most widely traded vegetable oil, and its plantations cover a size larger than Bangladesh, at 15 million hectares globally. In 1996, global production of palm oil totalled 16 million metric tonnes. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.
And this demand is unlikely to abate anytime soon, with current production projected to double in the next decade. As some of the world’s largest brands continue to purchase palm oil at the expense of critical protected forest, efforts to reduce its impact on the environment are proving challenging.
Believe it or not, giving up palm oil may actually be bad for the environment. Not only because we are unlikely to stop demanding things like ice cream, chocolates or instant noodles anytime soon, but also because palm oil happens to be an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. In fact, palm oil makes up 35% of all vegetable oils, grown on just 10% of the land allocated to oil crops.
A report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature points out that boycotting palm oil may not be a solution, as it will only shift—rather than counter—losses to rainforests and wildlife caused by agriculture. Put simply, boycotted palm oil would need to be replaced by other types of vegetable oil to meet global demand – and that could actually make matters worse.
Most leading environmental charities are not calling for a boycott, saying it would just shift problems to different parts of the world. Further, palm oil is an important crop for the GDP of emerging economies, and there are millions of farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihood.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet here. The answer lies in seeking out food products and cosmetics that are sourced from sustainable oil, but in India that conversation is a non-starter on account of zero uptakes of the sustainable palm by the country. Yet, being the largest consumer and importer of palm oil, India has a critical role to play in driving sustainable palm oil practices in the sector.
Certification, a mechanism through which consumers pay higher prices for responsibly sourced products, has helped safeguard rainforests to an extent thus far. Around the world, palm oil certification is spearheaded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and the body is working with the industry to figure out ways to drive sustainability in palm oil production.
But unless consumers demand sustainable palm oil, that battle may be hard to win. “We can no longer afford to ignore this issue. We are in the midst of a climate emergency, and unless we start questioning our own consumption patterns, things will not change.” Kamal Seth, Country Head, India, RSPO, told YKA.