At one time or another, we have all heard about palm oil and learned to think of it with negative overtones, although few people actually know why. And yet it is a fact that brands that slam a ‘palm oil free’ label on their product do so to incorporate values such as health and sustainability into their brand identity, to appeal to certain consumers. Recently, Sri Lanka took the historic and unprecedented decision to ban palm oil completely, prohibiting imports and pledging to clear all existing crops.
Why is this decision so important? And what are the negative implications of palm oil consumption and production?
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable fat used in the production process of many food and cosmetic products. It is derived from the African oil palm, an invasive species whose cultivation is among the most profitable in the world. The advantages for producers are considerable: these crops produces much more oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil crops, such as coconut or soy, and palm oil has a longer shelf life than other vegetable oils and is extremely versatile, odourless, and tasteless. It is used to make spreads creamy and fried products crispy, but also as organic fuel. Why is a product with such seemingly miraculous properties so universally criticised?
The problem with palm oil is sustainability
Palm oil plantations produce catastrophic consequences for the biodiversity of the regions where they are prevalent. Precisely because of the high profits that they can yield, the companies that plan them have been known to buy up and torch some of the world’s oldest forests. This means that huge green areas, which used to absorb tons of CO2 every year, have first been turned into colossal sources of emissions (as burning releases carbon dioxide) and then left idle, depriving the planet of their ability to regulate the atmosphere. To put this in perspective: deforestation is currently responsible for 15% of all emissions on the planet, the same percentage generated by all the cars, trucks and trains in the world. Land acquisition practices have also proved devastating for local communities, who have often been forcibly expropriated and whose economy has been entirely subjugated by oil palm cultivation.
In addition, these crops often make extensive use of harmful chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which contaminate surrounding soils and water supplies, further contributing to the destruction of biodiversity. Moreover, as we know, areas with low biodiversity are more prone to flooding. This puts local communities at risk, threatens their health and stability, and has serious social and economic consequences. There is another side to the destruction of biodiversity: the risk of extinction faced by animal species whose natural habitats are cleared out to make way for new crops. Finally, the water consumption of these crops is disproportionately higher than average.
The importance of conscious consumption
Sri Lanka’s choice is so far unique in the international scenario of countries in which palm oil producers have invested, but it could pave the way for others in the future. The tug-of-war that inevitably followed the decree, neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia, which themselves produce palm oil and partially export it to Sri Lanka, led to some concessions regarding the possibility of importing the more refined and high-quality variants of the product.
Consumers’ attitudes could make the difference, just as they did in Europe. Raising awareness towards conscious consumption is the best way to motivate companies to make ethical and sustainable choices.