Friday 6 May 2011

Palm Oil

That's the mistake I want to talk about this week. I think palm oil has the potential to be one of the bigger environmental mistakes we make as a species. It's an oil derived from the fruit of the palm. So far, not much to separate it from rape or olive oil. But the problem is where its planted. The biggest plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia, with others in Africa. It grows in tropical climates. Essentially it grows where there was rainforest. The equivalent of thirty square miles a day of rainforest are being felled to plant more palm oil plantations.

That rainforest is one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth. In Sumatra there are 465 species of birds and in Borneo 420. Sumatra is the only place in the world that the Sumatran tiger lives. Between 2004 and 2008, according to the US Great Ape Trust, the orangutan population fell by 10 per cent on Borneo and by 14 per cent on Sumatra. The decline of the orangutan in the face of deforestation motivated by palm oil has been described as genocide.

Ok, so we get the picture, palm oil is really bad. That's ok, because as we saw yesterday, humans are pretty clever, and as soon as we work out that something is really bad, we stop doing it.

No-one's going to accept palm oil. It's clearly a dreadful thing. Nobody's going to eat anything that says 'palm oil' on the label. Certainly nobody in their right mind is going to put it in their petrol tank and burn it. Right?

Wrong. Palm oil is being sold as biofuel. International agreements to increase the use of biofuel are directly contributing to the increased destruction of rainforests to grow palm-oil plantations. These international agreements seek to decrease the impact of climate change by reducing the emissions from burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the land that the plantations are being grown on is not only ex-rainforest, it's also ex-rainforest that grew on ex-peatbogs. The emissions from cutting down the rainforest and burning the peat are greater than from the fossil fuels they seek to replace.

And as to not eating anything that says palm oil on the label? There's no obligation to declare palm oil on ingredients lists. Any food that lists 'vegetable oil' as an ingredient may or may not contain palm oil.


  1. Another great (and challenging) post Elena. Just to add: you can pretty well eliminate palm oil from your storecupboard if you don't eat processed food or margarine, or use commercial soaps.

    P.S. Can hear buzzard here too, but no cuckoo this Spring. I feel their absence keenly.

  2. Agreed. Excellent post Elena. I've posted recently on Ecomonkey about Action Aid's campaign to stop our government increasing by 3 times the amount of biofuels we use that not only add to detrimental climate changes but cause great suffering to families and communities living in rainforest areas.

    We have until 2 June to convince government to halt the increase.