About Sustainable Palm Oil
In recent years, unsustainable palm oil has been brought to the public’s attention and has become the hot topic of conversation. But what do we really know about palm oil itself, and how are we able to counteract the detrimental effects it’s having on our beautiful planet?
We also ask the questions: what are big companies doing about it? What can we do about it? What is FairPalm? Read on for everything you need to know…
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the fruits of African palms. The trees originally came from west and south-west Africa, but they were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is where most plantations can be found now.
With 66 million tonnes annually, palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil and can be found in almost half of our everyday purchases. Palm oil products are found in every corner of your home and is hidden away in the likes of:
So as you can imagine, it’s everywhere!
Why is Regular Palm Oil Thought to Be Bad?
To make way for palm oil plantations, huge areas of rainforest are either burned to the ground or taken down by machinery. In Indonesia alone, an area the size of two football pitches is lost every minute. It’s estimated that in Indonesia and Malaysia, 40-80% of the palm oil plantations were established by clearing forests.
Palm oil production is said to play one of the biggest parts in the world’s deforestation, and as a result, the natural habitats of many wonderful and endangered wildlife species are destroyed. Worse still, some animals are brutally killed and removed from their home. Additionally, forest fires which have been started to clear land for oil palm, release high levels of carbon dioxide and black carbon into the atmosphere, which is a huge contributing factor in climate change.
You can read in more detail about palm oil in our blog post, Is Palm Oil Bad?
What is being done about the palm oil crisis?
Greenpeace is working to persuade big companies like Nestle, Unilever and Mars to sign global commitments to drop ‘dirty palm oil’ in their products by 2020. But with little time left, it seems more unlikely that this will be achieved.
Some manufacturers have said that they will only buy palm oil that they know has been produced in a sustainable way. This means that the planet won’t be damaged because of it. However, without supplier chain audits and full traceability, it’s difficult for manufacturers and therefore consumers, to be entirely sure.
Companies are making customers more aware of what goes into the products that they buy. For example, in the past, products could get away with putting ‘contains vegetable oil’ on their packaging. Today, a new European Union labelling law has made it so that palm oil must be listed if it has been used as an ingredient.
What can we do?
We should not avoid palm oil all together. In fact, palm oil is a very efficient crop, with less pesticides and fertilisers needing to be used, as well as less land required to grow it, in comparison to similar crops like soybean or coconut oil. It is also important to remember that the production of palm oil has provided jobs for millions of small farmers, helping them to work with dignity, earn more money and provide a better life for themselves and their families. Plus, avoiding palm oil all together could have worse effects in that it might take support away from companies who are working their hardest to improve the situation.
What we need to do is focus on using palm oil responsibly, and by this, we mean only buying products where the palm oil has been sourced sustainably – which leads us on to our next question…
Is there room for sustainable palm oil?
Thankfully, more companies are acknowledging the devastation palm oil is creating and are choosing to source sustainable palm oil which is made with respect for both the environment and local communities. It may surprise you to read that not all palm oil farming contributes to deforestation. Increasing yields on existing palm oil plantations is the first step to sustainable palm oil. If farmers closed the gap between the most and least productive yields, more palm oil would be created, without using more land. It is also possible to expand plantations into land that isn’t already forested; an example being Brazil palm oil farmers who are expanding their plantations into old cattle pastures.
Another effective way to sustainably farm palm oil is to plant palm trees amongst other trees. Whether this be interspersing with other crop trees such as cocoa, or simply amongst natural flora trees – allowing them to grow naturally and eliminating the need to cut down trees in other areas in order to develop plantations is always beneficial.
Since 2013, Traidcraft has worked with a cooperative in Ghana called Serendipalm, who has followed these methods very successfully, focusing on natural ways to increase production and support their workers’ training and healthcare. They also use completely organic methods of farming and allow crops to grow at their own pace. The “Serendi” part of the company name is derived from the word “serendipity”, meaning “finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it”—a motto that applies to all Serendi projects.
Through working with Serendipalm as well as Natural Habitats in Ecuador, Traidcraft has developed FairPalm – the world’s only fair trade, organic palm oil, that protects the environment while supporting smallholder growers. Read on for more information about FairPalm and where it can be found.
Where can we get sustainably sourced products?
Many of the big brands which we are familiar with as consumers are now claiming to be working sustainably, or even removing palm oil from their own branded products. These claims don’t always show the whole truth. For example, some large supermarket chains made this pledge and have continued to sell their own branded products containing palm oil online or under another brand name. Other examples include palm oil being listed in ingredients as a different type of ‘vegetable oil’, which masks the fact that palm oil still exists within their products.
Despite the outside picture looking positive for some businesses, palm oil is being replaced with a similar product that is not sustainably sourced, defeating the objective. Examples like these haven’t quite reached the media’s attention yet, and subsequently aren’t common public knowledge. It’s important for consumers to be aware of hidden truths, in order to make informed judgements about who to trust.
As far as sustainable palm oil is concerned, FairPalm is causing real waves across the globe. FairPalm uses organic palm oil in a way that supports smallholder growers and allows the palm plants to grow naturally. There’s no usage of any chemical nasties to increase production or reduce pests – as organic methods are used which encourages palm fruits to grow in the most natural of ways.
Together with the aforementioned companies, Traidcraft have defied industry norms in creating the ultimate sustainably sourced palm oil. We’ve called this oil FairPalm which can be found in our eco-friendly cleaning products and our delicious fair trade biscuits. The FairPalm label guarantees that the process of creating the oil involves fair pay, makes direct links between smallholders and consumers, as well as focusing on high environmental standards.
How did FairPalm start?
The overall goal was to demonstrate that palm oil could be cultivated in a just and sustainable way. Prior to the amalgamation with Serendipalm and Natural Habitats, which resulted in FairPalm being created, Traidcraft joined the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). This allowed us to understand the complex issues surrounding the topic, and talk to other members such as Greenpeace and WWF, who liked the idea but whose focus was on the wider industry. Traidcraft then went on a scoping visit to Ghana, where there are some large palm plantations, but the majority are smallholders who are generally intercropping (growing different crops together) rather than practicing monoculture, which is a great for sustainability and a process which the group then adopted.
FairPalm recognises that palm oil is a great crop for smallholders to focus on, due to the fact that little land is needed and it’s fairly low maintenance, but extremely high yielding. FairPalm is much more than just organic palm oil, as it is extracted from the fruit and arrives to the UK as crude palm oil, and to Traidcraft as ‘RBD’ (refined, bleached, deodorised), which means that, unfortunately for larger manufacturers, it can’t be simply substituted for regular palm oil in their products.
In the future, FairPalm will be included, where possible, in as many products as possible across Traidcraft Shop.
10 things you didn’t know about palm oil
Despite what you may have heard, palm oil is very good for us. Among many other things, its consumption reportedly reduces cholesterol levels, slows the progression of heart disease, boosts brain health and improves both skin and hair. But what else do we need to know? The team here at Traidcraft Shop lay down all of the facts...
1. FairPalm is the world’s only fair trade, organic palm oil. It protects the environment while also supporting smallholder growers across the world.
2. Palm oil has the highest yield per hectare of land compared to other oil crops.
3. The oil has many functional benefits, including its stability at high temperatures during cooking. Its crispiness and crunch, neutral smell and taste has the ability to stay solid/semi-solid at room temperature too.
4. Palm oil is one of the most widely produced edible fats in the world.
5. In the early 1900s, around a quarter of a million tonnes of palm oil was exported annually from South-East Asia. These figures have now risen to 60 million tonnes.
6. Palm oil has been part of the human diet for over 9,000 years! Archaeologists found a substance that they discovered to be palm oil in a tomb in Abydos, which dates back to 3,000 BC!
7. 40% of palm oil production is produced by smallholders.
8. Around 200 orangutans are killed every month because of deforestation, caused by the production of unsustainable palm oil. The forests where they live are destroyed and they are often burnt or beaten to death.
9. Figures predict that if deforestation continues at its current rate, all Indian and Malaysian rainforests will be wiped out by 2022 – which is why we need to be sourcing palm oil sustainably. When we consider that rainforests provide around 28% of the world's oxygen, this is even more of an alarming prediction…
10. Much of the unsustainable, non-fair trade palm oil plantations promote child labour and violate the human rights of many workers. Often children are made to carry heavy fruits and spend long hours collecting fruits from the plantation floor.
If you'd like to learn more and even have the opportunity to visit FairPalm producers themselves at Serendipalm, take a look at Meet the People's once in a lifetime trip to Ghana!