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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The haze

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Photo taken in Bedok area ten minutes before the PSI read 360 at 1pm on Friday, 21 June.
Taken by Wikipedia user ‘Wolcott’. Click to go to source.

Today at 4pm the PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) has dipped down past below 100, providing a respite that began yesterday afternoon. I hope it lasts. I hate wearing that mask thing. It’s uncomfortable, inconvenient and I look ridiculous. So this past week when the haze had hit us, I resisted when I left the house for work, but each time within a minute of that awful burning smell, I would be resigned to having to put it on. There’s always one in my bag now. Plus Strepsils for my throat.

I would hate to fall sick now, more than at any other time. I’m going up to Kuala Lumpur next weekend to participate in the marathon. The registration was months ago and the preparation for the trip was set up weeks ago. To be honest, between work and other commitments, my training for the marathon has long been largely neglected, so I’m going in with an ‘oh whatever, just do the best you can again‘ attitude. This will be my fourth one, and to be honest I’m a bit jaded and bored with it. This will probably be my last full marathon. But just two weeks ago there was that bad cold that meant I didn’t exercise at all for over a week, and now here was another week I couldn’t jog outside. Thank goodness for the free workout videos at HASfit.com which allows me to continue exercising at home so at least I’m doing something.

Bert is also doing his first event ever, the 10K. Back in February when I registered, I suggested he register for the 10K instead of being there as just my supporter again, and to my surprise he agreed. He started brisk walking, about 3 times a week, training seriously. Often our walks go over 10K. I’m still surprised by this and regret I didn’t make the suggestion sooner. I’m so happy and excited for him.

So if we fall sick now I’m going to be really mad. Just as mad, or more mad than if the haze hit KL too and causes the event to be cancelled or postponed. I hope that won’t happen but I just need to bear that in mind so I won’t be totally crushed if that really happens.

Ugh, I can be such a brat. Who cares about lil ole’ me when there are so many other people who would be affected more gravely. Hardcore marathoners who take it more seriously. Foreign participants who will be flying in for the event (We’re just travelling cheaply on a coach bus for a few hours). The hundreds of kids and adults who volunteer, giving so much of their time and effort to prepare for the event.

(Update Thursday 27 June, 12:30pm: The KL Marathon is indeed postponed, to 29 September. Me and Bert are still going up to KL. We can’t change travel plans now, and will try to make the best of the trip with indoor sights if the air will really be that bad.)

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Well I discovered that I should be grateful I have masks in the first place because apparently not everyone managed to get some for their own use. I was shocked when I read that. It all seemed impossible and alarming that this could happen in my country, but apparently it was out of stock at the pharmacies. How on earth could that have happened, when the haze is an annual affair. It’s not new. This is not the first time. What about the workers who continue to work outdoors? What if conditions worsen even more than the previous high of PSI 400? Then there were the disappointing stories of jacked up prices of these masks. How totally f**ked up, really. Hopefully the efforts to ensure supply of N95 masks will work and people actually get their hands on them, and at a controlled price.

Our own supply is actually leftover from last year’s haze. Or the years before, I forget. Bert’s darling family in Rome got all anxious about haze reports, bought a box from a pharmacy there, and air-mailed it over. Quite fancy-looking ones compared to the ones we have seen on other people. We had laughed and thought ‘how sweet, but wow, over-dramatic‘, and ended up using them and giving some away when work projects took us working at construction sites. Well this week, I’m so glad for over-dramatic Italian family members. The masks gave some needed and appreciated relief, when we wore them during a haze for the first time.

DSCN0962_01

Masks by 3M. That’s my sweet Blackie on the left. He likes to stay close to me when I’m at my desk. (so he can get his slave to stroke him and scratch his back for him. He knows I quickly give in to his demands because he knows I find his meowing very high-pitched and annoying.)

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It’s still hard to feel sorry for ourselves, masks or not. Many more people in Sumatra, where the forest fires come from, have suffered for years and I suspect so much more seriously. The fires are right in their backyard. We get the haze this time of the year due to wind conditions, for days or weeks, which is terrible enough. What about them, how many months a year? Like us, their lives need to go on, bills need to be paid, mouths need to be fed. But of course life is much harder and cruel for them, forest fires or not. If we in the so-called first world feel frustrated because we feel our voices are not heard, I imagine all they can feel is resignation because of the level of corruption and inaction they may have to put up with. From Wikipedia:

While much of the press has focused on the haze’s impact in Singapore and Malaysia, the local residents of Riau are feeling the greater heat. Residents have fled their homes in Bengkalis, with about 30% experiencing respiratory problems. The fires have burned through hectares of local farmland, decimating this season’s crops.The PSI in Dumai has also hit 492 on Friday morning. However, due to the wind patterns, most of the rest of Indonesia has not been hit by the haze.

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‘Motorists in Pekanbaru city, Sumatra. Forest fires in Sumatra have triggered an environmental crisis in Singapore.’
Image by: AFP. From gulfnews.com. Click to go there.

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‘A mother gives a drink to her son as she prepares to leave her house with her children after a forest fire spread close to their home near Dumai, as haze covers Indonesia’s Riau province June 20, 2013.’
Image by: REUTERS/Beawiharta. From finance.yahoo.com. Click to go there.

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A casualty of the Sumatran forest fires. (Photo from 2012). From Facebook of Radio 91.3. Click to go there.

I read a letter posted online where the writer shares how he and his family have decided to boycott Indonesian goods, and boycott Indonesia as a holiday destination. I do not agree with that.

What I would boycott are products that contain palm oil, from wherever in the world these products are from. I understand this is not easy, as palm oil is an ingredient very commonly found in not only many food products but even toiletries. But nothing good comes easy. When we choose to care about something or even someone, whether it’s a lover or our weight (haha), an environmental issue, etc, we’re never in for an easy time, are we. We just sigh and put up with any inconvenience and the challenges and patiently put in the time and effort; we just do it anyway. Even if I cannot totally eliminate palm oil from my life, some effort is better than nothing. I have to read up much more and educate myself on this issue, and see what I can personally do.