Sunday 25 November 2012

ARCHIVE: Peak Palm Oil

In the Low Carbon Cookbook last April we focused one evening entirely on the subject of oil. Not the fossil fuel kind that Transition normally looks at, but the cooking oils we use every day without thinking about either their provenance or environmental effects. We looked at rapeseed and hemp which grow in the UK. olive, sesame and sunflowers which are grown and produced in other countries.

But one oil we did not consider, which is rarely in our kitchens but an invisible presence in a vast majority of processed dishes and an integral part of the global food system is palm oil. A recent article on this ubiquitous substance stated that palm oil plantation expansion in Indonesia is set to release more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020, according to a report published in Nature Climate Change. That’s more than Canada’s yearly CO2 emissions. Elena Judd, one of the original movers and shakers behind Norwich FarmShare, wrote two posts about waking up to its pernicious damage:

On Palm Oil by Elena Judd  
5-6 May 2010

This is 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.

Avoiding Palm Oil
;Palm oil is the 'cheapest' vegetable oil available to food manufacturers. Clearly, it costs us all a great deal, but not in the monetary terms understood by world trade. The World Health Organisation has reservations about palm oil's safety- and has advised that it should not be considered a healthy alternative to trans fats. Research appears to show that palm oil consumption is linked to higher rates of heart disease. That gives us a monetary cost in providing health care for those people, but also a human cost in terms of loved and valuable people dying before their time. Add in the environmental cost of deforesting huge areas of rainforest and the environmental, human and monetary costs of worsening climate change (through burning peat bogs and rainforest to grow the stuff) and its starting to look pretty expensive to me.

I decided I'd like to find out how much palm oil I am consuming. I really believe that Michael Pollen is right in what he says about 'voting with your fork':
How you and your family choose to spend your food money represents one of the most powerful votes you have... and you get three of them every day.”
Last week I recorded everything I ate. I didn't change the things I ate, I just wanted to record an average week. At the end of the week I checked the ingredients list of everything I could and worked out if it was likely to contain palm oil or not. I know that there is palm oil in lots of non-food items, like soap and shampoo, but I didn't record them during the week. My soap from Lush is fine, as Lush spent lots of time and money working out how to make soap without palm oil- and then made their successful method available to any other company who wanted it.
I learnt a lot about where palm oil lurks and what I can do to avoid buying the stuff. None of it is rocket science, I admit, but I'm pleased to have learnt it.
None of the 'raw ingredients' I cook with have palm oil in them. I can't say for sure it wasn't used somehow in their growing and processing- that kind of thing is hidden away and hard to find out about. But I am confident that none of the vegetables, spices, fruit, pulses and flours I use have palm oil in them.

By contrast, all of the processed foods I indulge in are suspect. The odd frozen pizza that makes it into my trolley is very likely to have palm oil in. The crisps and chocolate that make my workday a bit more luxurious are interestingly split: in this instance, crisps are fine but the brand of chocolate I love the most is neither fair-trade nor palm-oil free. Whenever I don't have time to make my own bread, the supermarket bread I fall back on almost certainly contains palm oil. The 'big three' bread bakers use it, as the independent discovered:
“It's in the top three loaves – Warburtons, Hovis, and Kingsmill – and the bestselling margarines Flora and Clover. It's in Special K, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, Mr Kipling Cakes, McVitie's Digestives and Goodfella's pizza. It's in KitKat, Galaxy, Dairy Milk and Wrigley's chewing gum. It's in Persil washing powder, Comfort fabric softener and Dove soap. It's also in plenty of famous brands that aren't in the top 100, such as Milkybar, Jordan's Country Crisp and Utterly Butterly. And it's almost certainly in thousands of supermarket own brands.”
But the ingredient which is most worrying me is margarine. I cook and bake with it too, which means my home-made bread could be just as compromised as the supermarket stuff. If there was a legal obligation to label palm oil, I could be sure to buy a palm-oil free margarine.
It was frustrating looking at all those labels that said 'vegetable oil' and having no idea if it was palm oil or not. Then I turned over a box of chocs from the Co-op that a friend had bought me. There on the label it said 'palm oil'. Looking into it, I found that the Co-op voluntarily label all their own-brand products which contain palm oil. No other supermarket does this.
I'll be voting with my fork and shopping at the Co-op more. And I'll be a very happy bunny if they sell margarine without palm oil in it.

STOP PRESS!: There is a key petition about bio-fuels being handed to DECC this Tuesday. Please sign the PETITION

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