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It’s human nature that when we find seemingly great solutions, we want to apply them to everything and share with everyone we can. We also have a great tendency towards the “all-or-nothing” strategy of sharing ideas and making decisions. Usually, these tendencies ignore a lot of the grey area, which is always worthwhile to explore. It is in this context that we need to understand the intricate and complex controversy surrounding the ever-growing use of palm oil.

Our relationship with palm oil began in the mid-1800s in Indonesia and Malaysia, where we discovered the oil palm was very rich in oil that could serve multiple purposes from making soap to fueling a steam engine. Palm oil yields average about 6000 liters per hectare, far beyond other edible oils (more than eight times that of soybeans), making it an oil that requires a lot less space to farm and a very cheap oil in the global market. Palm oil also has a longer shelf life than other oils. Virgin red palm oil has recently earned a healthy reputation for a very high antioxidant capacity of beta-carotene, tocotrienols, tocopherols and Vitamin E. Sounds great, right? A catch-all solution for a lot of food and fuel needs.

Use as much palm oil as we can has been the philosophy for well over a century. The overall use of palm oil has grown exponentially since the 1960s, rising from about a half million to over two million tons in the 1980s, andover 48 million tons in the mid-2000s. In 2005, palm oil surpassed soya as the world’s most produced vegetable oil. The increase in demand isn’t forecasted to end anytime soon—it’s expected to triple by 2050. What accounts for this serious spike in use, and is there a real cost that’s being overlooked? Here comes the grey area…

Palm oil had long been regarded as unhealthy, since most of the palm oil available until recent years was very refined. However, remember about a decade ago, when we woke up to the health risks of trans fats and the industry caved to demands for their removal from our diet? Palm oil has been keeping us off those trans fatty oils. Processed palm oil has the right proportions of saturated and unsaturated fats to replace trans fatty oils without sacrificing the flavor and texture of our most favorite processed treats such as breads, crackers, chips, cereals, candies, and vegan dairy substitutes. This added demand, in addition to palm oil’s already known potential as fuel alternative, has had many consequences. The concern that has perhaps received the most media attention pertains to the production of palm oil and its effect on wildlife, in particular, the orangutan. Most of the palm industry favors the same rainforest lowlands that orangutans favor as their only suitable habitat. Alaffia, a fair trade palm oil vendor, noted in an official statement “there are less than 60,000 orangutans currently and nearly 5,000 of them are killed or die yearly over the past few years as palm oil plantations take up their habitat.” Conservation and economic justice experts also cite overuse as causing increased tropical deforestation; increased greenhouse gas emissions; soil erosion and loss of biodiversity due to monoculture plantations; water pollution due to poor nutrient management and use of toxic herbicides; and causing social and human rights atrocities that often stem from product globalization: low pay among workers; an uptick in use of child labor; and the forced eviction and illegal acquisition of land belonging to indigenous people to make room for more product. Another consideration: since the demand has surpassed the supply, we in the West are competing with the locals for use and driving up the cost for this important food source, making it unaffordable for other families around the world that depend on it.

Given the detrimental impacts the palm oil harvest seems to have on our land, water, animals, and people, do we really need to use this much of it? Just how valuable is the palm oil resource really?

Local Naturopath Katy Wallace of Human Nature, LLC says “it depends on how [palm oil] is processed and how much you consume. The more processed … the more destructive to our health it becomes because oils tend to be unstable once pressed from their source… Vegetable oils like unrefined coconut and palm oils are gaining recognition for health benefits and have a relatively lower component of polyunsaturated fats… Research demonstrates these oils must be consumed in moderation. Palm oil contains 49% saturated fat, 37% monounsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturated (9% omega 6 and 0.2% omega 3 fats). This means that palm oil is a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats. The health impacts essentially come down to whether it is virgin (first-pressing) or a processed product. Although palm oil is relatively low in polyunsaturated fat, the versions typically used in industrial food purposes can be as dangerous as trans fats because they become oxidized as the oil is refined for culinary purposes. Conversely, virgin red palm oil, like Alaffia’s, shows astounding health benefits. With its high saturated fat content, red palm oil has surprised researchers by reducing oxidative stress in people with chronic disease including heart disease and cancer.”

A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formed in 2004 to address areas of concern by developing certification standards that would reward good stewardship and create greater competition for companies that did not adopt best practices. The RSPO is a conglomeration of traders, manufacturers, retailers, and growers. They claim their unity will make palm oil more eco-friendly by requiring plantations to set aside land for jungle regeneration and engage in other sustainable practices. In 2012, 13.9% of global palm production was RSPO certified sustainable, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The RSPO has no intention to promote the halt the expansion of the palm oil industry, in fact, the WWF, a key member of the RSPO, believes the industry will grow regardless, but that the RSPO should ensure palm oil production becomes more sustainable for the environment and the people. The RSPO’s credibility depends on its stakeholders implementing best practices and adhering to prohibitions of new palm plantings on high conservation valued areas, on primary forests, and on the local people’s lands without proper consent.

Recently, questions arose pertaining to the RSPO’s credibility, and whether the RSPO is green washing the palm oil dispute. While some of the RSPO’s members have met the sustainability standards, which National Geographic claims are some of the toughest for vegetable oil production, the GreenPalm certificates developed by the RSPO to tout sustainability only claim that companies need to support sustainable palm oil, they do not need to source sustainable palm oil. This is seen by critics as a way to confuse consumers rather than force the industry to address their own palm oil supply chains and force a demand for sustainable palm oil production. It is very confusing indeed. Large companies typically do not purchase directly from the grower, they purchase from processors and traders. There is no segregation of sustainable vs. non-sustainable supply. So even when our favorite food and cosmetics companies try to make their products with RSPO certified oil, there is no way to really know whether that is true because currently the sustainable oil is mixed with all the rest. Producers can show with certification how much sustainable oil they have purchased, but that doesn’t mean that the consumer can ensure they are purchasing a 100% sustainable product.

Pressure on the RSPO to come forward with a better way is on the rise, and the WWF is now starting to shift its focus to a new group: the Palm Oil Innovation Group, hoping they will resolve to ensure credibility, and that certified sustainable palm oil will become the demanded standard, not the exception.

Is everything about palm oil wrong? What are some of the benefits of producing palm oil, aside from its health value in its virgin state, its ability to get the processed food consumer off trans fats, and its potential as a key biodiesel component?

As noted, the oil palm is a very productive source of vegetable oil per hectare. Investing in sustainably harvesting palm oil in plantation-free and orangutan safe conditions may protect other forests and wildlife habitats from becoming agricultural lands that take up more habitat. Oil palm, with a lifespan of about 25 years, causes little impact in annual cultivation, resulting in less need for fertilizer, pesticides, and diverting water. Some companies, like Dr. Bronner’s and Alaffia, are sourcing palm oil from West Africa, where palms are native, and can be purchased from family and fair trade sources where no forests have been cleared. Alaffia has expressly told Willy Street Co-op that they do not use palm oil from plantations where orangutans live. “Our natural West African palm oil is grown and harvested by small-scale farmers in the Maritime region of Togo, from the town of Tsevie to Kpalime. The oil is extracted by our fair trade cooperative in Sokode using traditional methods… Oil palms are native to West Africa, and have been grown as part of multi-cropped sustainable small farms for centuries. Furthermore, it is important to point out that Orangutans do not exist at all in Africa.”  The Sumatran orangutan Society suggests that future expansion of plantations can be redirected to non-forest land in Indonesia that is equally as suitable to growing oil palms as the rainforest. In summary: production of palm oil is not inherently detrimental; it is only detrimental in the way the majority is sourced now, and in the quantities being sourced.

With all the considerations to make, one thing is clear: palm oil production is not going away. The demand is only growing. A consumer boycott may slow down the rate at which production increases, but it won’t completely resolve the matter. It may be best to invest in the companies that do palm oil right. A boycott is also made more difficult due to weak labeling standards, since palm oil can currently be included in the list of other oils that the industry need only list as “vegetable oil” on their labels. Efforts may be better used to put pressure on the FDA to change the labeling standards.

Make no mistake, Willy Street Co-op carries Alaffia’s Red Palm Oil and we also carry and make processed products that contain palm oil. Up until recent weaknesses in the RSPO came to light, our purchasing department had been relying on the GreenPalm certification to determine which companies’ products contained sustainably harvested oil. We are considering how to source products containing palm oil moving forward. A lot of products containing palm oil are very popular, and it will be up to all of us, as Owners, to stay informed regarding this important, but controversial ingredient. We need to do our part to urge palm oil-associated companies to adopt better practices or get out of using palm oil, reward companies that play fair and sustainably, support efforts for stronger labeling standards, and inform our staff of our opinions regarding this matter through continued dialogue and voting via what we put through the checkout line. It’s not anall-or-nothing matter. We look forward to being part of the solution, and hearing your ideas about how to move forward.