The problem with palm oil – what you should know
The issues around the use of palm oil in many of our everyday products have been drawn to our attention recently, the most high profile being the recent Iceland Christmas advert which was withdrawn from distribution.
What exactly is palm oil and why is there a problem with its use in certain products? Here are some key facts:
1. What is palm oil and where does it come from?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were imported to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply but there are 42 other countries that also produce palm oil. Palm oil is sometimes referred to by other names such as PKO (Palm Kernel Oil); Elaeis Guineensis; and Glyceryl Stearate.
2. What products contain palm oil?
Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil that has many different properties and functions which makes it so attractive and hence is widely used. And that is the problem. It is found in almost 50% of the everyday products we use from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate to deodorant, shampoo, soap, ice cream, toothpaste and lipstick.
3. What exactly is the problem with palm oil?
Palm oil is a major cause of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. This deforestation is also resulting in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere thereby contributing to climate change. The extraction of palm oil also involves some exploitation of workers and child labour.
4. Are there alternatives?
The answer is yes there are alternatives. Palm oil can be sourced more sustainably but it is not always clear whether the products we buy include sustainable or non-sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm oil was having on the environment and on society. The RSPO has a production standard that sets best practices for producing and sourcing palm oil, and it has global buy-in.
5. What can we do?
In 2012 the UK Government recognised that we were part of the palm oil problem and could also be part of the solution. They set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources that don’t harm nature or people. In 2016 78% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable. This is great progress but there is more to be done to get to 100%.
We can all help to get to that level by checking the product labels when we visit the supermarket and swapping items for those that contain sustainable palm oil evidenced by the RSPO label. This is not always clearly identified but many of the larger brands and manufacturers now highlight whether the palm oil has been sustainably sourced on their product labels.
If we do this then we can all be part of the solution.
6. How can I find out more?
WWF has some useful information on which products contain palm oil and has published the palm oil buyers Scorecard which assesses whether major global palm oil using companies and brands have taken action on palm oil sustainability. It reviewed 137 companies including well-recognised brands like Tesco, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Boots, Sainsbury’s and Unilever to see whether they had taken the key steps on sustainability that had been asked of them for the last 10 years.
The RSPO has a raft of information about how what they are doing to that ensure only Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is sourced and used in our everyday products.