While consuming ramen straight from the cup at 3am in the traditional ritual of the college student preparing for exams, I glanced at the list of ingredients. Amid the long and complex names that I would need a PhD in chemistry to unravel, I noticed two tiny words almost tucked away: palm oil. Only a few days ago, I had seen an advertisement for ridiculously expensive palm oil-free ramen. Somewhere in my tiny reptilian college student brain I put two and two together.
What’s so significant about palm oil?
Palm oil, harvested from the African palm oil tree, has spread from its native land to the North and South Americas and Asia as a busy market has sprang up around its use. Over 30% of the vegetable oil used in the world comes from palm oil. Palm oil has a variety of uses, from toothpaste to shampoo, detergent to make-up, sweets to baked goods. Look around what you use in your house: chances are, about half will contain palm oil.
With the rising need for alternatives to fossil fuels, some countries have even invested in palm oil plants, converting the vegetable oil to biodiesel. Looking to human health, palm oil, while not as healthy as other vegetable oils, does seem to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood in comparison to animal fats or other popular saturated oils such as coconut oil. While not ideal, palm oil does bring many benefits to the table. Or does it?
Unfortunately, most of the palm oil produced today is not grown sustainably. The production of palm oil involves razing rainforest worldwide to make room for fertile farms. Due to a combination of intensive farming exhausting the soil rapidly and ever-rising demand, the palm oil industry constantly carves into forests. Farms are frequently built on existing carbon sinks such as peat bogs, which causes massive release of greenhouse emissions. Palm oil production threatens the habitats of endangered animals, from the Sumatran tiger to the orangutan.
Worse yet, the palm oil industry thrives on human rights violations. Harvesting palm oil, especially in countries such as Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo, comes at the expense of indigenous people, as corporations—which governments are often powerless to stop, or with which the governments actively work—destroy the lands on which indigenous people live, leaving them with a choice between forced employment on palm oil plantations or starvation. The industry runs on horrific widespread child labour, and the workers, both those whose land has forcibly been taken and imported illegal immigrants, have little to no rights. Since the alternative is death, people work for hours on end in terrible conditions; many end up disabled for life or deceased. Once an area has been cleared out and exhausted, the corporations move on. The ‘employment and development opportunities’ vanish as the indigenous people are left with nothing but a wasteland of desolation.
Palm oil seems to be in everything we use, and the alternatives can be expensive. But steps can be taken in the right direction. From seeking products without palm oil, to contacting your representatives in support of sustainable palm oil growth. At least now you and I know, and knowing is half the battle.