The great dilemma with palm oil is its extreme versatility.
It is used in almost all of our everyday products, cosmetics, domestics and foods. It is a $90 billion industry which employs millions of people, mostly in poorer countries.
It uses 10 times less land than other oils, with much greater yield. It grows easily, requiring a remarkably small amount of fertiliser and pesticides. It is a very convenient vegetable oil and is one of the least damaging to our health, as it is low in dangerous saturated fats.
But the industry is wrecking the planet. Corporations cut corners on environmental protection and human rights to further their empires.
Palm oil is found in around half of all packaged products from biscuits and ice cream, to detergents and soaps. Its use has more than doubled in the last decade.
Originally a West Africa tree, palm oil was brought to South-East Asia at the beginning of the 20th century to supply the British Industrial Revolution with machinery lubricant and candle wax.
At that time, a quarter of a million tonnes of palm oil were being exported annually from South-East Asia.
Now over 60 million tonnes are exported a year.
Avoiding palm oil all together means opting out of a destructive industry.
However, this is dead hard, and brands needs motivation to increase responsibly sources palm oil.
Indonesia produces over half of the world's palm oil. On its largest island Sumatra, 55 per cent of forests have already been lost to palm oil plantations.
Around the world, there is another 30-40 times the size of current palm oil plantations available, which are commercially interesting for growing palm oil.
A palm oil factory generates 2.5 tons of liquid waste for every ton of palm oil produced. This effluent causes freshwater pollution, which harms downstream biodiversity and people.
Giant corporates buying palm oil unresponsively are prompting locals in places like India and Indonesia to to act drastically and meet their demands. To clear vegetation and make space for more plantations, a dangerous slash and burn tactic is use.
Greenhouse gas emissions from burning forests ancient forests with soils rich in stored, old carbon is a big cause of climate change. This in turn increases the severity of droughts which increases the risk of more wildfires.
Despite having low income and producing very low emissions per person, Indonesia has become one of the top carbon emitters alongside China and the US.
The smokey haze from this burning hangs in the air. In Indonesia it drifts far, and has caused over 100,000 deaths in the country, as well as Malaysia and Singapore.
By burning and changing the forests to plantations, palm oil is causing huge habitat loss and dangers for abundant tropical biodiversity. Endangered animals are squeezed into increasingly isolated fragments of natural habitat with no where to go.
Half of the Bornean Orangutan populations, endemic to Indonesia, have been lost due to dangerous plantation expansion.
43 per cent of the largest national park established to protect the endangered Sumatran Tiger has now been overrun with illegal palm oil plantings.
Elephants, leopards and bears are also critically endangered. Orangutans are expected to last no more than 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.
Using forced labour and child labour with gender discrimination, brands exploit workers through dangerous practices that put the health of workers at risk.
Children as young as 8 are dropping out of school to do dangerous, hard work and earn money under the palm oil industry.
Workers are forced to work without equipment to protect themselves from pesticides, toxic chemicals and forest fires.
“Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance.”
What we can do?
Palm oil Free
It's a hideously convoluted topic. Boycotting all palm oil feels like a good option. Palm oil is in so many low-nutritional, unhealthy, processed foods, that eating fresh, whole foods instead avoids the industry.
If you aim to shop palm oil free, look out for its other names in the ingredient lists: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.
Responsible Palm Oil
Buying only brands that are addressing the problem supports the transition to a sustainable industry. Keep an eye out for public campaigns against the worst offenders and sign petitions to raise awareness.
Look for the RSPO and Green Palm labels to for products made with certified sustainable palm oil. They signify that palm oil was produced in the most socially and environmentally responsible way.
Greenpeace is hot on challenging brands about palm oil and deforestation. They campaign against big brands causing the problem. They are partners in the Palm Oil Innovation Group, who are NGOs and corporations working together towards a more sustainable industry.
The Union of Concerned Scientists also reviewed big brands in the sustainable commitments, though it is a bit out of date.
WWF also provides scorecards to help consumers.