Palm Oil and its hidden costs

I’d like to take you on a journey to Asia. Don’t worry, you don’t need to leave your computer, or the comfort of your home. Simply join me on Google Earth and look at the satellite view. As you cross Myanmar and Thailand, you could think you were looking at lush green forest below you. After all, you’ve heard of the stories of tigers and elephants wandering in the jungle, alongside giant pythons and other fantastic wildlife. However, look again, this time closer! Zoom in and you’ll see something different. There is something missing…. the forest! Yes, you’re looking at vegetation… but this is the farmed kind. Tigers or giant pythons no longer live here, while the elephants are pretty thin on the ground.

In 1989 when Thailand realised it was suffering from floods and droughts, it banned logging in effort to protect its remaining beautiful old growth Teak, Mahogany, Rosewoods and other exotic timber trees that hadn’t been wiped out. Unfortunately, these trees now only exist in small pockets of woodland in government-protected parks. The wild Asian elephant survives in these Thai National Forests but it has been estimated by wildlife organisations that this figure is only between 1,200 and 1,500 and is declining each year. Compare this to the 100,000 wild elephants that roamed these impenetrable forests at the beginning of the 20th century and you’ve got a problem. Their land, now cleared and used for rice, sugar cane, coconut, fruit, vegetable and oil palm plantations.

The Asian elephant isn’t the only species struggling as a result. The Indonesian tiger may now be extinct in the wild (in Thailand). The unprotected dry, mixed woodlands that remain (mostly on hillsides in nutrient poor soil), are subjected to yearly slash and burn clearing by local farmers extending their farms (often illegally). The tree cover diminishes each year despite attempts at replanting and sustainable forestry projects, reducing the cover that the Indonesian tiger needs to hunt and survive.

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A satellite image showing deforestation in Malaysian Borneo to allow the plantation of oil palm. Credit: NASA

Then, when you turn to the South of Thailand, near its Malaysian neighbour, oil palms coat the landscape view on Google Earth. You can follow them down through Malaysia into Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and throughout the rest of Indonesia. What you’re looking at is a tide of oil palm monoculture. The rainforest and all its biodiverse life has been squeezed into ever decreasing isolated pockets, putting tremendous pressure on critically endangered species. The pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, Sumatran tiger and the orang-utan are some of these victims.
So why are we growing palm oil?

As a product, it has been around a long time, particularly being used for cooking oil in Asia for millennia. Though rarely seen on Western supermarket shelves in its cooking oil form, most people don’t realise that palm oil is used many other products they consume. Of course the brand ’Palmolive,’ is a clue that palm oil appears in soaps (stearic acid, steareth, stearate, palmitic acid). Palm oil is used to make foaming agents known as sodium laureth sulfate, or sodium lauryl sulfate. These derivatives can also be made from coconut oil but aren’t as cheap to produce. Most body wash, shampoo and hair conditioners and many kitchen cleansers will have varying degrees of these foaming agents. It gets even more complicated when looking at other uses of palm oil. The chemical names (or generic use of terms like ‘vegetable oil’) on lists of ingredients don’t give any clue that palm oil is also being used for toothpaste, sunscreens, lotions, cosmetics, lipstick, and many baked and processed goods on supermarket shelves including bread, cereals and biscuits. Pick any item up from a Western super-market and it is hard to stumble across one without palm oil. Even chocolate, dried instant noodles and many cakes contain palm oil.

Palm oil: energy intensive

The next biggest use of palm oil is within biomass electricity generation and biodiesel. In most fuel bought at the pump, 5% comes from plants like palm oil. It is considered ‘green’ in comparison to fossil fuels, making many Governments worldwide clamour for this new ‘green’ fuel to replace the petroleum gasoline and diesel fuels polluting the planet. The oil palm industry has grown into a gigantic commodity and lists on futures markets along with wheat, petroleum oil, coffee and cattle. The fact that this product as become entrenched in everyday life has attracted speculative investors… oil palm production has become a very big business!

Where it’s being grown

Oil palms grows best in the equatorial belt of the planet, so the biggest plantations can be found in Indonesia, Africa and Brazil. The race to clear our Rainforest for pail oil at speeds described as ‘six-football-pitches worth per minute’, is done against those competing for agriculture, livestock raising, and mining. Paper companies too are also taking the wood (mostly for toilet paper and kitchen towels), and the broken tree stumps are bulldozed, leaving a degraded mess devoid of life.

Oil palm plantations take a large proportion of the cleared landscape considered now to be ‘arable’ land. It is now also legally put into the ‘sustainable land’ category as the forest is gone, never to be replaced. It is a water intensive crop, requiring expensive artificial fertilisers, and the processing of oil palm has been criticised for creating untreated runoffs and poisoning watercourses vital to local villagers. Displaced animals such as elephants and orangutans who try to find food among these oil palm plantations are met with sling shot projectiles, hatchets and bullets from the oil palm workers. The results are tragic!

The destruction of our rainforests has been so intense that concerned NGOs and wildlife charities raised the alarm as species continued to rapidly disappear. As a result, The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to help consumers make better purchases with the RSPO ‘sustainable’ symbol added to the product labelling. Now, in order to use the RSPO label, oil palm producers, distributors, manufacturers and retailers, all have to meet requirements to prove they have used only sustainably-grown palm oil.

The RSPO sounds like a good idea, but it’s gone astray. It simply does not have the ability to keep companies on the straight and narrow route of sustainable farming. Corruption is rife in the oil palm industry and the RSPO simply doesn’t have the law-enforcement capabilities it should have in place. The ‘slap on the wrist’ from the RSPO is inconsequential to companies who have access to wealth and power. How many times have you seen the RSPO label on a loaf of bread? Moreover, did you even know that the innocuous sounding ‘vegetable oil’ in the list of ingredients, is most likely actually palm oil?

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Oil palm growing in Guarayos, Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Credit: Neil Palmer

In March 2015, the annual slash and burn started at the end of the dry season in Thailand. I watched as the air turned into a yellow haze that hid mountains, temples and tall buildings from view. People were issued paper masks and the hospitals filled with respiratory failure cases. Military planes dropped water, but it wasn’t enough. Singapore and Malaysia sent planes to help. I spent 6 hours of a 12 hour overnight 500km train journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, watching snaking lines of burning forest, the flames fanning quickly. Even within an air-conditioned carriage, I could barely breathe. In Bangkok, people blamed Myanmar for the haze and meanwhile, world media didn’t even mention the out-of-control fires which were locally rumoured to be illegal attempts of ‘clearing’ for palm oil. Officially, it was described as ‘traditional agricultural fields’ that were burning and the fires had spread into the forest due to continued drought and strong winds. I beg to differ. I saw fires set in forestland next to the railway tracks. Perpetrators always wait until dusk so that most of the smoke isn’t visible through the night.

In October 2015, Indonesia – currently the second biggest producer of Oil Palm, had a similar slash and burn season instigated mostly by oil palm companies. Sadly, this soon escalated into a tragedy of epic proportions when the rain didn’t arrive in time to put out the fires! Haze covered much of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Southern Thailand, and the yellow cloud was visible from satellite view. It was estimated that the CO2 produced each day as a result, was more than the entire US economy daily output.

Who is to blame for this travesty? Is it the producer? Is it the manufacturer? Is it the distributer? Is it the government? Is it the consumer? Well, the simple answer is that it’s all of us. The problem lies in quantity! If it’s not palm oil, it’s coconut palm, or soybean- whatever feeds the demand of the growing population.

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Palm oil factory. Credit: Curt Reynolds

Answers will only really come when we recognise that we’re living and demanding for things far greater than what we actually need to survive, and than what the world can produce sustainably. Try and avoid buying palm oil products wherever possible, and if there’s an option to pay more for a palm oil free product then do it. We need to start considering the bigger picture to these environmental problems. The real key solution is to not buy anything unless you actually really need it.
In the meantime, perhaps the government may want to consider putting legislation in place that requires all manufacturers to put warnings on their products, including extinction of species, climate change and ecocide.

Author profile:

Collete Nevin

Author profile: Colette Nevin spends half her year aboard her Narrowboat travelling Britain’s beautiful waterways. For the rest of it, she spends it travelling to countries, where she has witnessed alarming issues including massive exploitation, slavery and the abuse of animals. Using these experiences, Colette wants to be a voice for wildlife, speaking up for them to have equal rights as humans. She has also contributed a Rants for Change video on riding elephants sustainability during travelling abroad. 

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