Thoughts on Palm Oil

The following post is by Katie Peige, Herban Lifestyle’s Sustainability Associate.

I am enjoying the Florida sun, having flown away from the frigid winter weather of the Mid-Atlantic. Donning my sunglasses and sundress I sway in a hammock overlooking the ocean with a cool breeze on my face. Between myself and the aqua water are several palm trees of different heights and what seems to be different species. In the last few days, palm products have come to my attention: from a friend sending me an article on the “best” new sweetener palm sugar, to Ask Umbra’s column on sustainable candles, to the palm oil found in Herban Lifestyle’s products. As the Herban Lifestyle disclaimer points out, the palm oil used in HL products comes from organic and fair trade sources which “adhere to strict environmentally sustainability programs” Well the more I read about palm oil, the more I wanted to know what all this talk about unsustainable palm oil production was about.

Palm oil is found in food products, beauty products, detergents, and shampoos. Palm oil is a healthier alternative to other oils and due to the bans on trans fat, the demand for palm oil has been growing. In fact, palm oil is the number one source of vegetable oil and can be found in half of the world’s packaged goods. Then, of course, palm oil is used as biodiesel, which is how I originally heard of the deforestation problem.

Palm oil is created from squeezing the red fruit from the palm oil tree that primarily grows in Malaysia and Indonesia. Since I am surrounded by palms in Florida, I thought I could check out a palm oil plantation to see what’s going on. After doing some research, I found nothing to suggest that there are any palm oil plantations in Florida (bummer, I was really looking forward to the field trip). Anyway, in Asia palm oil plantations are planted on former rainforest land, which often times is the result of deforestation. In Indonesia, 30,000 square kilometers of former rainforest now serve as palm oil plantations, that’s 30,000 square kilometers that could be serving as natural habitat and as a carbon sink. Each palm oil plantation destroys and displaces thousands of plant and wildlife species including endangered rhinos, orangutans, elephants, tigers, and many others.

Deforestation is not the only ecological nightmare in this scenario because in Indonesia and more recently Malaysia, they drain and burn peatlands. Peatlands are mostly water (90%) and act like a sponge soaking up large amounts of carbon; however, when they are drained these gases escape right back into the atmosphere. It gets worse; after the peat is dried it is burned to clear the ground for the palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, the draining of peatlands contributes to 660 million tons of carbon released into the atmosphere annually with an additional 1.5 billion tons of carbon released from the fires, making Indonesia the third largest CO2 producer in the world. Wetlands International just released a report that digs deeper into the peat swamp forests’ destruction in Malaysia; you can read more about it here.

Is sustainability possible? Well on an optimistic note, Brazil has introduced a novel program that requires new palm plantations must be planted on land that has already been deforested and abandoned (typically used short term for lumber or sugarcane). Thankfully this program will not only lead to economic development and new jobs but also new trees as the palm oil plantations create reforestation thanks to not needing to cut the trees down to make palm oil. Another pioneer in the sustainable palm oil effort is the non-profit organization, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which as the name suggests, oversees sustainable palm oil production through their RSPO Certification process. You can learn more here about RSPO, sustainable palm practices, certification, and a bit more on the history of palm oil.

Be sure to keep yours eyes peeled for this relatively new certification. As for me, I’m going to get back to watching the palms sway in the ocean breeze.

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Palm Oil

  1. Thanks for this info. Palm oil has a horrible reputation due to deforestation, habitat loss, biodiversity impact, and carbon footprint. It’s good to hear that there are some programs being put in place to address these issues. Perhaps another reason that the Brazilian economy is one of the world’s great powerhouses at the moment. Unfortunately that means that emerging economies such as Malaysia and Indonesia will cut costs in order to compete. I hope that groups such as the RSPO will have a strong global impact, and most importantly that consumers will actively look for such labeling on products when shopping.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Rob. Yes, I hope that efforts by the RSPO can help growers throughout the world to adapt their farming practices to be sustainable. I strongly believe that consumers can make positive differences by supporting those who work to do the right thing.

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  3. Its the “corn and soybeans” of SE Asia: fields of Palm instead of fields of another single crop. In my eyes, any farm that isn’t grealty bio-diverse is unsustainable. (Kind of a bold statement, and I apologize if I offend any monocrop farmers.)

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    • Yes, Katie did a good job of laying out some of the problems with palm production. I’m sure there is more that can be done, but it is good to see that there is growing awareness of the problem and attempts to remedy it.

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  4. Yea! Thanks for this article! I, too, source my palm from Brazil, avoiding anything from Malaysia (gotta love those orangutans!). I think people need to know there’s an “okay” way to get palm oil. You don’t have to shun everything made with palm – just do some checking first! (-:

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  5. Very informative & I am continuing to research better ways to grow vegetable oil from palm or other sources. I also am a part of a non-profit called the Space Coast Energy Consortium in Florida. We’re looking for renewable energy sources in Florida utilizing the powerful sunshine – the basic source of all energy on our planet. Although the palm oil tree tree isn’t farmed in FL it does grow here along with every other variety of palm tree with some palm varieties native to FL. I’d like to develop a more cold tolerant variety of palm oil tree that can thrive above the south FL region & intersperse with nitrogen- fixing plants between the trees. This could then be the the feed stock for bio-diesel which could be used for cars, aircraft, and rocket fuel.

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  6. I too was looking for a palm oil plantation in Florida. Do you know why there aren’t any? I know the sustainable credits (which also seem to be somewhat questionable) cost significantly more, so I would hope that (and trade tariffs) would cancel out any difference in payment. I was just wondering if you had any insight on the lack in the US because it seems to me there are many former farms in appropriate climates with high unemployment that would seem to be the perfect fit.

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    • Hi Heather, Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the issue to give you an informed answer. I completely agree that there are areas in the U.S. that seem like they would be perfect for palm oil production. Maybe if there is enough of a demand, things will change.

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