Ask Gaia About Palm Oil and Pills

This is the fourth installment of your new favorite advice column, penned by resident eco-expert and celestial goddess, Gaia. It originally appeared in Issue 03. Submit your own question here.

“Imagine if people stopped using products with palm oil. What would happen to the industry there? Like if they didn't harvest palm oil what would that land be used for? The government would not turn it into a sanctuary; they would probably harvest another crop and do as much damage.”

— Unconvinced in the US

Dear Unconvinced,

Your suspicions around land use are well-founded, dear earthling. But being Gaia and all, I’m painfully aware that natural resources are not a zero sum game. In the case of agriculture, there are greedy crops that use more nutrients, water, carbon, and other inputs to a greater degree than others. Conversely, more beneficial crops and sustainable cultivation can result in cumulative benefits like carbon sequestration and the return of nutrients to depleted soil.

You see, palm oil, derived from the pulp of the fruit of oil palms, is not the problem so much as the way it is cultivated and commodified. You are correct in that if the land was simply used for another commodity crop in the same destructive manner, the problem would not improve. Therefore, this advice (while specific to the regions growing oil palms) can be extrapolated to commodified agriculture everywhere. The incredible demand for palm oil did not sprout out of absolutely nowhere, so let’s look at some of the forces behind this billion dollar industry.

Why It’s So Heavily Used

 Illustrations by  Elizabeth Stilwell .

Illustrations by Elizabeth Stilwell.

Like yoga retreats and Eat, Pray, Love quests, palm oil exists only within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. These same regions also happen to contain our most biodiverse tropical rainforests. West Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia all cultivate oil palms; 85% of the world’s supply is produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. As a consumable, palm oil is widely used for domestic cooking in places where it is traditionally cultivated, like in Southeast Asia and Africa, as well as in China and India, which account for more than a third of global palm oil imports.

After the United States snacked its way through a fear of fats in the 1980s which lead to the use of hydrogenated oils, they moved back to using the “tropical” fats of coconut and palm when they decided trans fats were worse.[1] Food conglomerates like Cargill, Nestle, Kraft, and PepsiCo increase global demand in their search to replace high trans fat content oils as cheaply as possible. As a result, more than half the products on sale in your supermarkets are made with palm oil! I get it. Its special combination of fatty acids make it the ideal ingredient for the processed foods you love so much. Your cakes and ice creams and gross margarines need the stuff to be shelf stable (I’ll get to this later).

To a lesser degree, palm oil is used in other consumer products such as soap, candles, and cosmetics. An even smaller amount is used as biodiesel, though this is a growing share of the (shelf-stable) pie. Long story short, because of its price and characteristics, palm oil has crept into an incredible number of products. Bringing demand down to a sustainable level will require the conscious work of governments, communities, corporations, and consumers.  

The Problems

The commodification of palm oil helped drive its global demand. Profits for the industry likely peaked in 2011 and it now faces oversupply and weakening demand. This is bad news for the palm oil plantations, especially the smaller stakeholder farms that invested startup money upfront for a later payoff.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government is devising new ways to profit off of palm oil even though cultivation already takes up 77% of agricultural land or about 15% of the total land area there. The problem is that the promise of high profits came at the expense of domestic food production as farms moved away from subsistence crops that could feed the Malaysian people to commercial crops like palm oil grown for export. This makes no sense — especially since the main beneficiaries are the owners of palm oil companies and the couple dozen investors that control 80% of the invested funds.[2] Those who are not in the privileged class (the communities that gave up their lands for promised profits, indigenous peoples, and subsistence farmers) become vulnerable to market changes, yet no longer possess the land that once sustained them in tough times.

In Indonesia, the situation is slightly better, with smallholder farmers making up one-third of the producers. However, since 2011, Indonesia has spent more on importing food than it earns from exporting crude palm oil. If the bottom falls out of the market, those with the most to lose will find themselves between two fires.

As you probably already know, zealous expansion of oil palm plantations has come with environmental and community destruction. I can see from history (and terrible smog days in China) that disregarding the environment will come back to bite you, but man, your human memories are short! In addition, damage done to community lands can affect livelihoods now but will also do so as climate change worsens. Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, almost 80% of which originates from deforestation and burning of peatland for logging and palm oil — commercial crops, remember.

West Africa, another producer of palm oil and next on the chopping block for corporate exploitation, is attempting to avoid some of the mistakes Southeast Asia has made. Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, an environmental rights and responsible sourcing NGO, says, “If palm is planned and implemented very well then it has the potential to provide jobs and economic development — but if planning and implementation is poor, it has the potential to create deforestation, loss of habitat and loss of livelihood in local communities.” [3] The United Nations Food and Agriculture program actually encourages small farmers in Africa to grow oil palms because of the opportunities it offers them. Production is largely sustainable in the network of smallholder farms there.[4] Keeping the community involved and giving them agency over their production will go a long way to avoid potential conflicts.

Farming Solutions

With the help of advanced practices and research, countries could learn from the depleting and environmentally harmful practices of the past that decimated America’s tallgrass prairie and Brazil’s rainforests. The palm oil industry could fastrack better practices and sustainable development, saving people and resources from exploitation in the name of profit. Tbh, I don’t blame these countries for following the globalist capitalist agenda and pillaging the natural resource they have to export — that’s what is evangelized by your corporate markets after all.

Meanwhile, government-sanctioned organizations like the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) seem to be workarounds for the more comprehensive (but still lacking) Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit which verifies supplies as Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

Rather than straight up cutting off palm oil profits in the name of environmentalism, developed economies should financially incentivize better practices. Sustainable agriculture would help emerging markets avoid damage like deforestation, pollution, and carbon release — issues that will affect everyone through climate change in the long run.

It is imperative to stop the burning of peatlands and bulldozing of rainforests, but existing palm oil producers should be encouraged to increase yields and sustainably manage their land. Instead of compounding environmental issues or even boycotting palm oil, the most pressing issues can be ameliorated with education, incentives, and sustainable demand. Growing a commodity crop means more risk, so when the payoff is not sufficient, farmers should return to subsistence farming that they can sell in-country. But, as you reminded us, even those crops can cause environmental damage if not rotated and managed properly.

Worldwide, governments need to encourage more agroforestry (a more diverse land use system in which trees or shrubs are grown among crops) and permaculture (an agricultural system modeled after natural ecosystems) to mitigate monocultures like oil palms and their deleterious effects on the environment. Doing so will create more stable and integrated land use for the community and country — and even if supply does not reach demand as a result, it will keep prices high for the farmers and stakeholders. Without conscious planning like this, capitalist markets will drive down the price and will expect lowered costs around labor and production, leading to further exploitation of land and workers.

Product Solutions

Downstream producers can do their part by diversifying the kinds of oils they use in their products. Some brands attempt to use only RSPO certified palm oil, which could slow down use, but is ultimately not going to curb demand. Completely removing palm oil from consumer goods could move demand to another crop, as you mentioned dear reader, which could have its own issues. Using a variety of oils in products would make demand more spread out and sustainable. Yield measurements vary, but palm oil does produce more oil per hectare than other oils (another reason to encourage higher yields). However, high startup costs and peak production that takes years locks a farmer into the crop for decades. On the other hand, though their yields are smaller, seed crops like sunflowers and rapeseed are more flexible in that they can be changed year to year, making farmers less vulnerable to market changes. Diversifying demand could naturally incentivize growing other oil crops besides palms.

Consumer Solutions

Consumers like you can help by curbing demand for products that use palm oil and its derivatives. Let brands know that you are opposed to reliance on palm oil and reject the exploitation, deforestation, and child and forced labor that are part of its production in Malaysia and Indonesia.[5] A large proportion of palm oil in the US is used in shelf-stable processed foods like soda, cakes, crackers, and other snack foods. Yes, these items are delicious, but they are also nutritionally void, so cutting down on them is beneficial for our health, as well as that of the environment. I’m suggesting more fresh whole foods, to be sure, but also simply less processed foods like canned or frozen vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and other one-ingredient consumables. Combined with fresh produce into snacks and meals, these foods offer a more nutritionally dense diet than highly processed food ever could.[6] And that’s good for everyone.

Personal care items and cosmetics sneak an incredible amount of palm oil in via glycerin, stearates, palmitates, and other derivatives, which can be difficult to avoid. If you see a suspicious ingredient, ask the brand about its origin via email or social media. The more this issue is out in the open, the more we can address its effects.

The use of palm oil for biofuel is increasing, especially in the European Union. Members of the European Parliament recently voted to ban biofuels made from vegetable oil in an effort to curb global deforestation.[7] The issue is still being debated, but the apparent awareness around palm oil and environmental devastation is encouraging.  

Conclusion

Mitigating the damage done by palm oil production will require an amalgam of government, community, corporate, and consumer cooperation — not an easy task to be sure. But, you shouldn’t let that discourage you from actions that will bring everyone closer to those solutions. Be vocal about your objections, especially in areas of legislation and corporate policies. Encourage regulations on labor exploitation, environmental destruction, and unchecked commodification of all products, not just palm oil. These issues were not created by one actor, so it will take everyone to nurture a more sustainable system.

“Hi Gaia! I'm having trouble finding DHA supplements that don't have palm oil. Do you have any suggestions?”

— Perplexed in Pennsylvania

Dear Perplexed,

Good eye, sweet earthling! It is quite difficult to find palm oil free supplements, and there are a lot of sneaky ingredients in the mix. I would never suggest you not tend to your health because of palm oil, but it’s a good practice to search for palm-free options if you can. Fingers crossed you are looking for a vegan version, too ;) DHA is good for your heart, brain, and eyes — instead of the conventional fish oils, supplements made from algae are a vegan and environmentally-friendly alternative.

Pills and palm oil transparent.png

When shopping for supplements, always search for ones labeled “vegan,” as many capsules are made with gelatin. In gel capsules, watch out for glycerin, which may be derived from palm.

For liquid supplements, you might find ascorbyl palmitate (generally made from corn dextrose fermentation and palm oil) as a preservative. DHA, in particular, seems to be made with oleic acid for Omega 9. These derivatives may or may not be made from palm oil; unfortunately, it falls to you, sweet earthling, to ask the brand. Politely email them through their contact form and ask, “Can you please tell me what plant [ingredient] is derived from?” If you don’t get an answer there, you might try reaching out over social media channels, especially if they have a responsive account manager.

In the areas of health and medicine, if you search and don’t find a palm-free option, please don’t beat yourself up about it. As a consumer, you can only do so much to curb palm oil demand; as a human, you have to prioritize your health, too. Otherwise, you won’t have the strength to be the kick ass environmentalist you are! I see you all out there doin’ the best you can and I love you for it.

Gaiaspeed to you, awesome earthlings!
 

Footnotes

  1. Donald J. McNamara, PhD, “Palm Oil and Health: A Case of Manipulated Perception and Misuse of Science,” Palm Oil World, 11 April 2010, http://www.palmoilworld.org/PDFs/Nutrition/Palm-oil-and-health-McNamara.pdf

  2. Matthias Rhein, “Industrial Oil Palm Development Liberia’s Path to Sustained Economic Development and Shared Prosperity? Lessons from the East,” The Rights and Resources Initiative, February 2015, http://rightsandresources.org/en/publication/view/industrial-oil-palm-development-liberias-path-to-sustained-economic-development-and-shared-prosperity-lessons-from-the-east/

  3. Annie Kelly, “Palm oil boom: companies must clean up their act in Africa,” The Guardian, 7 December 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/dec/07/palm-oil-africa-deforestation-climate-change-land-rights-private-sector-liberia-cameroon

  4. “Social and environmental impact of palm oil,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 August 2017,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Social_and_environmental_impact_of_palm_oil&oldid=794577339

  5. “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor,” US Department of Labor, 1 December 2014, https://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/pdf/TVPRA_Report2014.pdf

  6. Tamar Haspel, “Processed foods: The problem probably isn’t what’s in them. It’s what’s not in them.” The Washington Post, 24 April 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/processed-foods-the-problem-probably-isnt-whats-in-them-its-whats-not-in-them/2014/04/24/93e60a4e-c3f2-11e3-b574-f8748871856a_story.html

  7. Arthur Neslen, “MEPs vote to ban the use of palm oil in biofuels,” The Guardian, 4 April 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/apr/04/palm-oil-biofuels-meps-eu-transport-deforestation-zsl-greenpeace-golden-agri-resources-oxfam