Palm oil has popped up on a lot of ingredients lists in the last several years. It’s been widely used by food manufacturers as a replacement for trans fat, after the trans fat labeling requirement went into effect in 2006. But the fast-rising demand for palm oil, a common ingredient also of soaps and personal care products and a growing source of biofuel in Europe, has had devastating consequences for the environment. And though it may not be as bad for you as trans fat, it isn’t exactly a health food.
A new study, led by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that the development of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo, a.k.a. Kalimantan, is driving “massive carbon dioxide emissions.” A leading producer of palm and palm kernel oil, Indonesia “is also one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, due to rapid loss of carbon-rich forests and peatlands.” According to the United Nations, 98 percent of Indonesia’s forests may be destroyed by 2022.
In 2010 alone, the study estimates, land-clearing for oil palm plantations in Kalimantan released more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equal to annual emissions from 28 million vehicles. By 2020, plantation expansion will account for 558 million metric tons, or more than all of Canada’s fossil fuel emissions. Researchers combined field measurements with analyses of high-resolution satellite images and government lease records to come up with these estimates.
The Indonesian government has pledged to curb deforestation as well as emissions, but some are skeptical about whether it can make good on that pledge. As reported in Scientific American, “much of Indonesia’s proposed policy centers on a plan to site new plantations on already degraded land, thus sparing the need for further forest clearing. But without clear parameters, that designation can easily be skewed,” said study leader Lisa Curran of Stanford University. The government, moreover, has not been able to crack down on rampant illegal foresting.
From China to the European Union to the U.S., the market for palm oil is exploding, and a May 2009 article in the U.K.’s Independent explains why:
In its own way, palm oil is a wonder plant. Astonishingly productive, its annual yield is 3.6 tonnes a hectare compared with half a tonne for soy or rapeseed. Originally found in West Africa, palm oil is uniquely “fractionable” when cooked, meaning its properties can be easily separated for different products. Although high in artery-clogging saturated fat, it is healthier than hydrogenated fats. For manufacturers, there is another significant benefit… it is cheaper than soy, rapeseed or sunflower.
Another advantage of palm oil for food production is that it “is highly versatile and can be substituted for hard animal fats (butter and lard); for soy, olive, or canola liquid vegetable oils; and for partially hydrogenated oil,” as explained in a 2005 report called “Cruel Oil” from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
It’s high-yielding, cheap and versatile. It’s no wonder palm oil is in huge global demand by food manufacturers, who have taken to billing it as a health food of sorts by, for example, touting the fact that it’s derived from the “fruit” of the oil palm. Studies have shown, however, that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease, just like butter, lard and trans fat.
That rainforests are being leveled to make margarine, crackers, cookies and chocolates is a tragic irony, to say the least. The Independent called it an example of “environmental lunacy” in that “it isn’t just destroying one of the last great wildernesses, its rare animals and some of the remaining people whose ways are at odds with modern living. It also threatens to damage our own lives in the West.”
For the sake of the environment, rainforest wildlife, including Orangutans and Sumatran tigers and your own health, read labels carefully and avoid products containing palm or palm kernel oil. Or, look at least for palm oil that’s sustainably produced. According to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil accounts for less than 10 percent of the global market.
Photo Credit: DrLianPinKoh