Reducing palm oil consumption

Since we were last hit with the haze in June, which I think was the worst ever in the many years of this annual (or near-annual?) problem, I’ve been meaning to look into palm oil, to see whether I should boycott it. It’s actually something that I’ve been vaguely wanting to eliminate from my life for some time.

Before the haze this year, it was mainly about wanting to cut down the amount of the unhealthy packaged processed food I eat, of which a huge amount is made with palm oil. The haze only served to greatly increase my dislike of the ingredient after I found out more and more about what it does to forests and wildlife, not to mention the communities who live in or near these forests. Laura from the blog Texas in Thames is also one of the people who have further sparked my interest, with her excellent post The Sky is Burning.

Well boycott sounds too dramatic a word, and besides it might not be totally possible as palm oil has really slicked itself deep into our lives; not just in food products but common toiletries as well. From greenpalm.org:

  • Palm oil can be found in a huge percentage of every day supermarket products. They can be found in one in two supermarket products, ranging from margarine, cereals, crisps, sweets and baked goods, to soaps, washing powders and cosmetics. Nevertheless you may never have heard of palm oil since it’s rarely listed as an ingredient on product labels, with the term ‘vegetable oil’ often being used instead. Palm oil can also be used in animal feedstuffs.

Well I already hate margarine and have avoided it for years. And as for potato chips (what we call crisps here), biscuits and sweets, I guess I’ll have to learn to make my own if I crave them that much. Can’t make my own washing powder though, haha.

So I can’t eliminate everything, but oh just a few things here and there. It’s really about reducing my consumption. Start with the things easy to quit and hopefully add more and more items over time. Baby steps. I don’t think I can suddenly quit products with palm oil totally cold turkey, like I how I quit smoking four years ago. I’ll have to approach it like I did other stuff I didn’t want to do out of sheer laziness and inconvenience, but forced myself to do anyway for a better me. Like exercise. I still just hate to exercise, but I have no choice but to continue working it into my life. I hate to exercise but I hated being fat even more.

And of course it doesn’t matter I’m just one person because I’m doing this for me, because it makes me happy. Hah.

But first, some interesting stuff I came across. (Unless otherwise indicated, all information are derived from the Wikipedia page on palm oil.)

What is Palm Oil? Uses and production

  • It is an edible vegetable oil and one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats.
  • Like all vegetable oils, palm oil does not contain cholesterol.
  • It is GMO-free (It is not derived from genetically modified organisms.)
  • It is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is buoyed by its lower cost and by the high oxidative stability (saturation) of the refined product when used for frying.
  • It can be used to produce biodiesel. It is often blended with other fuels to create palm oil biodiesel blends. The world’s largest palm oil biodiesel plant is the Finnish operated Neste Oil biodiesel plant right here in Singapore, which opened in 2011.
  • As of 2009, Indonesia was the largest producer of palm oil, surpassing Malaysia in 2006, producing more than 20.9 million tonnes.
  • As of 2011, Nigeria was the third-largest producer, with more than 2.5 million hectares under cultivation. Until 1934, Nigeria had been the world’s largest producer.
  • Colombia has now become the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35% of its product is exported as biofuel. In 2006, an expansion is being funded, in part, by the United States Agency for International Development.

From the website Say No to Unsustainable Palm Oil:

In many countries, there is no law on the mandatory labelling of palm oil. Consequently, companies will usually hide palm oil under the name of ‘vegetable oil’, or over 170 other names! (See their list of the most common 30 names).

One argument is that we need palm oil in today’s society, and that palm oil is a key ingredient in many foods and body products. But what about 30 years ago? Back then, palm oil wasn’t used in nearly as many products as today (as seen in the graphs found at the bottom of their ‘Images‘ page), in fact, it was almost non-existant in much of the Western-world. So why does there need to be such a high demand for it in the modern world? We don’t need palm oil. There are many alternatives to palm oil, but unfortunately none as cheap and efficient, which is why companies are reluctant to switch.

Positive impact of Palm Oil

  • The palm oil industry has had both positive and negative impacts on workers, indigenous peoples and residents of palm oil-producing communities. Palm oil production provides employment opportunities, and has been shown to improve infrastructure, social services and reduce poverty.
  • Some social initiatives use palm oil cultivation as part of poverty alleviation strategies. Examples include the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s hybrid oil palm project in Western Kenya, which improves incomes and diets of local populations, and Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority and Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority, which both support rural development.

Negative impact of Palm Oil

  • In some cases, palm oil plantations have developed lands without consultation or compensation of the indigenous people occupying the land, resulting in social conflict.
  • Palm oil cultivation has been criticized for impacts on the natural environment including deforestation, loss of natural habitats, which has threatened critically endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.
  • Many palm oil plantations are built on top of existing peat bogs, and clearing the land for palm oil cultivation may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Many processed foods contain palm oil as an ingredient. The USDA agricultural research service states that palm oil is not a healthy substitute for trans fats. Much of the palm oil that is consumed as food is to some degree oxidized rather than in the fresh state, and this oxidation appears to be responsible for the health risk associated with consuming palm oil.

And then there’s of course that sickening haze thing, as illustrated in the following images.

Marine_Parade_Road_(2)Haze_obscuring_Marine_Parade

Above: photos of the same location in Singapore in June 2013, from Wikipedia, by user ‘Wolcott’. Left: what a normal day looks like after the haze on 24th June. Right: Three days earlier. Click images to go to source.

How is the haze linked to Palm Oil?

The haze that we along with several other countries in the Southeast Asian region experienced, was caused by fires possibly set to clear patches of land for palm oil plantations. From Wikipedia’s page on the 2013 Southeast Asian haze:

  • NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites captured images of smoke from illegal wildfires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra blowing east toward southern Malaysia and Singapore, causing thick clouds of haze in the region.
  • Many of the hotspots are owned by palm oil companies or smallholder farmers who supply palm oil to these companies and use traditional slash-and-burn methods to clear their land for the next planting season.
  • Based on satellite detection of hotspots, the province of Riau in Sumatra has been found to contain over 88% of the hotspots that caused the worst haze over Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia since 1997. From 1 June to 24 June, NASA satellites have detected a total of more than 9,000 hotspots in Sumatra, and more than 8,000 of them were located in Riau.

A BBC article explains ‘slash-and-burn’:

  • This is where farmers cut down part of the vegetation on a patch of land and then set fire to the remainder. When started on peats, the fire is extremely difficult to control or stop. These fires produce a thick smog and release a huge volume of greenhouse gases.
  • Some farmers are clearing the forest to plant crops. But the big concern is that many of these fires may have been started to burn rain forest so big corporations can plant oil palm plantations.
  • Indonesia has named several firms, including Singapore and Malaysia-based palm oil companies, which it says may bear some responsibility for the fires. Many of those companies have denied any involvement and have accused the local farmers of starting the fires to clear the land.

What are some of the action taken?

  • In 1992, in response to concerns about deforestation, the Malaysian Government has pledged to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations by retaining a minimum of half the nation’s land as forest cover.
  • In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed to work with the palm oil industry.

Related links

Some articles and sites, both ‘for’ or ‘against’ Palm Oil.

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6 thoughts on “Reducing palm oil consumption

    • You’re welcome. So many eye-opening facts and opinion I came across as I was writing this, it’s really distressing how massive and complex the problem is.

      Thank you, Cindy!

  1. Thanks for the mention. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. Also, thanks for pulling out such really great data and facts. Wow, still so much to learn about the world. xx

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