Palm Oil : The everyday ingredient with a devastating impact

Shona Dennis

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Rainforest in Borneo set alight to make way for a new palm oil plantation. Rainforest in Borneo set alight to make way for a new palm oil plantation. Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network (Flickr)

There is one common ingredient which links over 50% of the packaged food we buy in supermarkets with shampoo, lipstick, household detergents and even biodiesel. That ingredient is palm oil and what follows is a brief explanation as to what you should consider before you purchase any products containing it :

Palm oil accounts for 40% of vegetable oil traded internationally. And, following the general direction that multi-billion dollar industries tend to take, this means it’s mass-produced on an unsustainable scale, cheap, and unlikely to do to your health any good.

It comes from the oil palm plant, which originates in West Africa. However, today 85% of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where the industry forms a major part of their economy. But this doesn’t mean it’s entirely benevolent: the industry has had a devastating impact on indigenous people who are moved from their native land to cater to the ever growing demand for more plantations. There is also the abuse of the low-paid labourers who produce the goods after this has taken place .

Essentially, the palm oil industry is linked to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Malaysia’s Sabah province, thousands of children, born to undocumented Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers, live without access to proper health care or education. These children often work alongside their parents as palm-pickers in order to help meet their daily harvesting targets. The work involves carrying large loads of heavy materials, weeding, and collecting loose fruit from the plantation floor for hours every day in exhausting heat – typically without any breaks.

Protest sign on the edge of the Sekonyer community, Borneo
Protest sign on the edge of the Sekonyer community, Borneo. Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network (Flickr)

The controversy that surrounds palm oil primarily focuses on the impact it is having on the environment in terms of the high green house gas emissions it produces (Indonesia is the 5th highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world). This is due in part to deforestation and forest fires, which then inflicts  harm on endangered species native to rainforests such as orang-utans, rhinos, elephants and tigers. As their natural habitats are destroyed to make way for new palm plantations, large numbers are being killed in both the process and the aftermath which involves struggling for food and shelter as they must relocate to smaller areas of untouched land. Orang-utans in particular are already at risk in the area as they are hunted for their meat and captured for the illegal pet trade. As more humans infringe on their environment, their numbers are greatly decreasing. According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 5,000 are killed per year.  The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) also reports that the widespread use of poisons in order to eliminate rats on plantations is poisoning other indigenous animals.

Bornean orang-utans
Bornean orang-utans. Photo credit: Hadi Zahar (Flickr)

In reponse to these issues, a movement to establish a more ethical palm oil industry has gained traction, with activists successfully persuading multinational companies to pledge that they will only source palm oil from accredited, sustainable plantations. For a plantation to meet the standards needed to gain a sustainable credential, it must not have any negative impact on local biodiversity, support local communities and respect human rights. However, many companies still have a long way to go when it comes to ethically sourcing the ingredient. As a consumer, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid accidentally picking up something that contains it once in a while – its prevalence is just too great. Popular treats bought everyday in Ireland such as Jaffa Cakes, Galaxy chocolate, Kit Kats and Oreos are all offenders, just to name a few. It takes time and research to distinguish which companies are sourcing it sustainably, but hopefully after considering the inhumanity that goes with it, more people will think twice before supporting any brands who will not do the same.

YouTube / GreenpeaceVideo – via Iframely

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Shona Dennis