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.