Before you reach for that jar of creamy chocolate spread at your local grocery store, you might want to check the ingredients list. You’ll likely find palm oil listed as the main ingredient. There’s also a good chance you’ve heard about palm oil and the debate it has generated. But the question remains, why is palm oil bad?
Palm oil is the most popular edible vegetable oil produced worldwide, which is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). The oils that can be produced are crude palm oil and palm kernel oil.
Crude palm oil is made by pressing the fleshy fruit, while palm kernel oil is made by crushing the kernel, or the stone, in the middle of the fruit. African-born oil palm trees were introduced to South-East Asia as an ornamental tree crop just over a century ago, yet they are native to that continent.
Today, palm oil can be found in just about anything: processed foods, soap, cosmetics, and even newspaper ink. Due to its connection to Southeast Asian deforestation, it has been dubbed the most despised crop in the world. Nevertheless, despite boycott movements, 73 million tonnes of palm oil is consumed worldwide in 2020, surpassing all other vegetable oils.
Read ahead to see why palm oil is bad and why it’s still the most popular oil used.
Why is Palm Oil So Popular?
Why is palm oil bad when it’s so popular? Palm oil is one of the most inexpensive oils among other cooking oils in the world. This is because it is a very high-yielding vegetable oil crop that only needs about half the amount of land as other crops like soybean, sunflower, or rapeseed. This makes it a productive crop with excellent earnings.
Furthermore, it has increased employment and decreased poverty in nations where it is grown on a large scale, such as Nigeria, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Brazil. This economic benefit encourages more expansion and makes it more difficult to justify its restriction on environmental conservation.
It also has so many diverse qualities and uses. Palm oil is used as a cooking oil, being stable at high temperatures, giving fried foods a crispy and crunchy texture, semi-solid at room temperature, which can keep spreads spreadable, resistant to oxidation, which can give products longer shelf life, and colourless, which means it doesn’t change the appearance or smell of food products.
The Real Issue with Palm Oil Industry
There are several issues believed as to why is palm oil bad. With the industry continually expanding, there are currently enough oil palm plantations worldwide. Most are in Asia, although plantations now appear in Africa and Latin America as well.
The use of palm oil has caused both health concerns as well as environmental concerns. But even though palm oil is trans-fat-free, there is controversy over whether consuming it might cause health risks. After all, other vegetable oils don’t seem to have many issues. Then why debate arises about whether palm oil is bad?
More than half of the fats in palm oil are saturated fats and may be bad for heart health. But according to one study, palm oil consumption does not have an incremental risk for cardiovascular disease when ingested as part of a balanced diet.
In addition, tocotrienols, a type of vitamin E that protects your cells and can lower your risk of certain health problems, including heart disease and cancer, are found in large quantities in vegetable oil. Other oils, such as olive oil, are advised for use in cooking despite the advantages.
It can be challenging to decide what constitutes an acceptable amount of palm oil because it is present in many common items. Its high saturated fat content can affect cardiovascular health, causing heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, and a variety of other health problems, which experts believe is the answer to why is palm oil bad.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you as to why is palm oil bad, the natural habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino is being destroyed by the use of palm oil, which has been and continues to be a major driver of deforestation in some of the world’s biodiverse forests. Numerous plant and animal species suffer greatly due to the widespread conversion of tropical forests into palm oil plantations.
Due to the concentration of large animal populations in smaller and smaller pieces of their natural environment, palm oil production also increases human-wildlife conflict. Rare and endangered species usually reside in destroyed habitats and commonly act as wildlife corridors between genetically diverse regions. The effects have even spread to national parks.
Forced evictions and land-grabbing have all been linked to palm oil cultivation. Local communities, notably indigenous people, have been at odds with it. Forced labour, child labour, and breaches of human rights abuses have also raised severe issues on some plantations. All these factors have contributed to the discussion of why is palm oil bad.
Was Palm Oil Always So Cheap?
No, palm oil hasn’t always been affordable. It became so due to the colonial and exploitation legacies that continue to influence the market today and make it difficult to move palm oil toward a more sustainable course.
Along West Africa, from Senegal to Angola, palm oil has long been a common ingredient in cuisine and first appeared in the global economy in the 1500s. Europeans started utilizing palm oil in the middle of the sixteenth century. According to European authors who studied African medical practices, palm oil “works the greatest cures upon such, as have bruises or strains on their bodies.” Because of its reddish-orange hue and violet-like aroma, British businessmen started incorporating palm oil into soap around the 1790s.
Trade in legal goods increased when Britain banned the slave trade in 1807. In the following decades, Britain lowered palm oil tariffs and urged African nations to concentrate on producing it. By 1840, palm oil was inexpensive enough to replace tallow or whale oil in items like soap and candles.
Margarine was created in 1869 by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès as a less expensive substitute for butter, and by 1900, a new industry was flourishing with all kinds of oils. It quickly became a staple of working-class diets in Europe and North America.
For greater supplies of more recent, edible palm oil and margarine, Britain resorted to Europe’s colonies in Africa. As it was still economical for them to produce oil by hand, African communities frequently refused to give land to Western businesses. To find workers, colonial palm oil producers used direct violence and government pressure.
They were more prosperous in Southeast Asia, where they established a brand-new oil palm plantation sector. The country’s colonial leaders provided plantation firms with almost unrestricted access to land. The businesses used “coolies,” a pejorative term coined by the Europeans to refer to migrant workers from southern India, Indonesia, and China. These workers were subjected to oppressive contracts with low pay and discriminatory rules. This also added to the discussion of why is palm oil bad. More palm oil was exported from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia by 1940 than from Africa combined.
After World War II, when Indonesia and Malaysia gained independence, plantation corporations still had access to cheap land. Authorities in Indonesia have branded the palm oil produced by their quickly expanding plantation business a “golden gift to the world.”
The market for tropical oils like coconut and palm decreased in Europe and North America in the 1970s and 1980s due to health concerns. However, despite knowing why is palm oil bad, it was used for frying and baking and was in high demand in developing countries.
Sustainable Palm Oil
A good way to disprove why is palm oil bad and to obtain palm oil for many uses without endangering the environment is through sustainably sourced palm oil. This method of making palm oil does not result in deforestation, is sourced responsibly, and is kind to species and their habitats.
Palm oil is a sustainable product. Producing sustainably entails growing this crop under the environmental and social norms defined by optional and in some cases, mandated programs. Many of these programs result from close collaboration between governments, corporations, smallholders, and NGOs.
Companies, governments, and consumers all have a part to play in making the production of palm oil more sustainable. In 2004, the RSPO, also known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, was established in response to growing worries about the effects palm oil had on society and the environment. The RSPO contains production standards for growers that outline the best methods for producing and obtaining palm oil and supports most of the international industry.
Is there an Alternative Solution?
The answer to why is palm oil bad might not be as simple as finding an alternative. There is no better crop to replace it, according to various research conducted by NGOs. Boycotting palm oil will specifically result in alternatives being produced that consume even more land, adding to the sustainability issues already present. Then, how do we move forward? Sustainable palm oil production is the solution.
Alternative oils like soybean, coconut oil, or sunflower oil would require 4 to 10 times more land to produce the same quantity of oil, which would move the issue to other regions of the planet and put other habitats, species, and communities in danger.
Millions of smallholder farmers rely on producing palm oil to support their families. The solution is not to boycott palm oil. To address the issues and move further and faster, we must expect more action against this and create awareness as to why is palm oil bad. The palm oil sector may be able to benefit society without endangering the natural world with better management techniques. Applying strict production standards to all phases of palm oil production will make the palm oil industry no longer operate at the expense of rainforests.
Growing palm oil ethically and responsibly improves the environment and generates habitats for native animals, small farmers, and local communities. Sustainable palm oil sourcing benefits all parties involved and might even solve the issue of why is palm oil bad.