Problems with Palm Oil – and how to avoid it

Palm oil is a plant based alternative to digging up hydrocarbons (like oil).

In theory, the concept of growing the fuel that we use might be a good idea, unfortunately this has not worked well in practice. The best place to grow palm oil is along the equator, but this is where much of the tropical rainforest also grows. It has already been established that as much of this needs to be left intact as possible for the world to function as an ecosystem.

While I would have a problem in the way this is being undertaken for the simple reason that these rainforests hum with life there are other issues.

Cutting down rainforest emits vast amounts of carbon. It is estimated that a palm oil plantation planted on rainforest land that was cleared for its planting, would take at least 50 years to collect enough carbon to get back to where you started. Further more, large areas of rainforest in central Africa and Sumatra grow in and on peat. Much of this is remains of plant matter fallen in the last several hundred years. The problem is that by removing the forests you allow the peat to dry out and it then releases all of the carbon it has stored up. This peat can be 100m deep and so can store more carbon than the trees growing on it. Some of the land currently being converted to palm oil in Sumatra has so much carbon storage, that the land would have to be used to generate palm oil for at least 150 years to get back to level. Given the likelhood that it will not remain palm oil for this long it is highly likely to be a net increaser of carbon not decreaser.

A highly alarming move a few years ago saw a American firm (Herekles farms) setting up a palm oil plantation deep in the heart of the Congo rainforest. Not only does this suffer from similar problems to much of Sumatra, but the roads that are built for the workers to use are also used heavily by poachers so that the entire ecosystem quickly comes under attack. Three years after starting work they have only planted a tiny part of the 70,000 hectare area that was intended. Furthermore in desperation they have also taken to selling illegally felled timber. They have also taken to violent suppression of local peoples rights and started destroying rainforest before they had all the permissions required.

The move by this firm was alarming as up to that point African rainforests had largely avoided the onslaught that the south east Asian rainforests had suffered.


Essentially you can’t. Palm oil is now an ingredient in an alarming range of supermarket items.

This article by the BBC shows the range of items that contain palm oil and includes everything from Pringles to Nestle to Goodfellow pizza. There is a sustainable label RP|SO, but it appears reluctant or incapable to stop the very behaviour that it is there to police.

“The wholesale destruction of rainforests on Borneo for the palm oil plantations of Bumitama Gunajaya Agro (BGA) is threatening the survival of orangutans. BGA is a member of the RSPO – the organization issuing the label for supposedly “sustainable” palm oil. Please call for a stop to deforestation and an end to palm oil imports NOW!”

Above is from a rainforest rescue campaign, and as you can see the company that was destroying orangutan habitat was part of the RSPO. It must be said that the RSPO has been attempting to clean up its act and has made a little progress, but certainly not significant enough to be fully reliable.

Several years ago I wrote to Tesco’s to request some help in identifying which of their products were particularly bad on this front but unhelpfully was told that they don’t keep enough information to be able to tell me anything. Personally I found this lack of any information alarming.

A couple of years ago I visited Paignton Zoo. We went to the restaurant and were pleased to see signs prominently displayed saying that the food was all palm oil free. However when we were getting some bread I noticed that they served Flora spread, which contains palm oil. As such when I got home I wrote to point this out to them. I received a rapid detailed response, stating that yes I was correct and that as a result they had removed the signs and were changing their Flora to a different, palm oil free product. It is good to see an organisation like Paignton Zoo making the choice to avoid palm oil.

These two occasions demonstrate the difficulty of eating in this country without supporting the palm oil industry.

There are some positive signs. Some research has been done into palm oil derived from algae. The algae can be grown in the sea, so does not demand precious fresh water. Also as it is grown in the sea it does not require any land (it also grows faster and creates more palm oil).  For more information have a look at this article:


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