Monday, 24 November 2014

The Problem with Palm Oil


A few of the many alternatives to palm oil.
 One day earlier this year, the kids returned excitedly from our local Tesco Express with a bag full of goodies, one of which was some microwave popcorn. Within minutes, the whole downstairs was filled with the most disgusting stench, which rendered the microwave unusable for days despite repeated cleaning. (What are you even doing with a microwave? I hear- well that's another story.) It was the smell of burning rainforest, of human and animal suffering and wounded land. Really. That's what it was. Also the smell of something which is not very healthy to put into our bodies. It repulsed us straight away. From that moment on, palm oil has been banned in our household, and we have become avid label-readers of baked goods, confectionery and all manner of household and "food" products.

As if being vegan isn't enough..! 
But we chose the vegan lifestyle because we don't want to contribute to animal, human and environmental damage, death and suffering so it just doesn't make sense to us if we're still consuming a product which, although plant-based, directly contributes to all three of these types of exploitation.
So is palm oil even vegan?
Don't get us wrong. We would never want to criticise anyone or say that they are not really vegans because they bought some palm oil, but we do want to help people to make an informed choice about what they're supporting with their purchasing power, and we think many of you will most likely be as repulsed as we were when you hear about how palm oil is produced.

This is the problem: Palm oil is a cheap source of hard (saturated) vegetable oil that's useful in all kinds of baked and cooked food products as well as in some cleaning products too- but sadly there is a much higher price to pay for using this oil. Not just a high price for the dwindling rainforest and its precious plants and animals, or for the peoples who have to work on palm plantations; it could literally cost the Earth for all of us. We cannot afford that. The oil palm is native to West Africa, but is now grown widely in South East Asia, especially in Sumatra and Malaysia. Trouble is, vast tracts of rainforest are being burned down to make space for the palm plantations, leaving a monoculture and destroying this vital ecosystem. Animals such as the orangutan are often deliberately killed and their babies taken prisoner to live the rest of their days as captives in the world's zoos; or, homeless and hungry, they stray into villages where they are then shot. The Sumatran tiger, already on the endangered list, is also suffering from loss of habitat and numbers are dwindling fast. It also leaves many local people with no choice but to work for be exploited by the palm oil companies rather than living traditionally and in harmony with the natural environment as subsistence farmers. This is not real economic progress for any nation. I don't need to tell you how important the rainforests are to the health of our planet, and yet people are still cutting them down and burning them at an alarming rate. Environmental disaster is looming.
By avoiding products containing palm oil and asking companies not to use it, we can help minimise the demand for it and the palm oil plantations will no longer be viable. The destruction will end. It may sound a touch cynical, but bear in mind that companies think in terms of market trends rather than ethics; remember in the UK about 15 years ago when lactose intolerance hit the news and supermarkets went crazy to exploit that market with tons of own-brand dairy alternatives? Now that its not such big news any more all those products have (sadly) vanished. With enough publicity, we could make palm oil vanish too!

But what about sustainable palm oil?- Well the jury is still out on that one. Many companies such as Aldi make wide use of palm oil in many types of product, but in response to consumer demand, they have now pledged to source their palm oil "sustainably". This means that "sustainable" palm  oil producers will have to commit to providing reasonable conditions and pay for their workers and "responsible" (what a vague term!) land use. ie: no burning down of virgin rainforest, but presumably other types of land are still up for grabs. I'm not sure whether this is going far enough; plus the increasing use of palm oil by manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to oil crops grown elsewhere could be an economic concern, eg: the oilseed rape (canola oil) that is grown in Europe and elsewhere.

If you want to know more about palm oil and its production and uses in various products, follow these links:
http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php
http://www.rainforestfoundationuk.org/palmoil?gclid=CKiPhcPP_cECFQKWtAodbxoAoQ
http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/shoppingethically/palmoilfreelist.aspx