The story of Palm Oil over the last three decades is one of good intentions and unintended consequences. Palm oil is one of the cheapest and most versatile vegetable oils on the market. As a result, it is ubiquitous in our daily life.
If you have ever eaten cookies, margarine, chocolate or cereal you have consumed Palm oil. If you have ever used soap, shampoo, detergent, or lipstick you have used Palm oil. If you have ever filled up your tank with a biofuel such as biodiesel, you have likely consumed Palm oil. It would be a challenge to go through a day and not use Palm oil in some way.
It was the promotion of biofuels, led by the U.S. and Europe, and the inclusion of trans-fat-free palm oil in our food supply that were critical to creating unprecedented demand for Palm oil. Global annual production grew from 1 million metric tons in 1970 to 63 million metric tons in 2016.
As demand for Palm oil exploded, equatorial countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia quickly ramped up production. The trees grew quickly in the tropical climate and rich soil and export of the fruit provided a significant economic opportunity for these small countries.
Regrettably, the need for more land led to broad deforestation of the tropical rainforests in these countries. The cheapest way to clear land for Palm trees is a method called cut and burn. This process involves harvesting the timber in an area and then burning the debris. The results are devastating.
Locally, there has been significant habitat loss for species such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and tigers. Orangutans have faired the worse with over 50% of their population having been lost in the past few years. This method of clearing rainforests has also significantly impacted air quality for local residents creating a spike in air quality related illnesses such as asthma.
Globally, the cutting and burning of these rainforests have released huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Currently, deforestation accounts for 15% of the world's carbon emissions, equivalent to that of every car, truck, or train across the globe. These costs were not accounted for when calculating the environmental benefits of biofuels or other palm-based products.
There have been efforts to make palm more sustainable with the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Products with the RSPO seal must not be produced on land which is cleared by fire. While there is debate over the effectiveness of these measures we applaud their efforts and believe it is a good starting point. Significantly, RSPO estimates that it certifies only 20% of the globally produced Palm oil, leaving 80% of the market with no concern for sustainability.
There are arguments that abandoning palm altogether may cause more harm than good. The concern is that intense agriculture will fill the void left by palm, bringing with it a chemical cocktail of herbicides and pesticides that would wreak havoc on the delicate ecological balance of the rainforest. We respect these arguments, just as we appreciate that RSPO is working hard to make the Palm industry more sustainable.
Want to read more? The New York Times published a recent article on Palm Oil that caught our eye.
We have always used RSPO certified organic palm oil. That said, the more we read about the impacts of palm oil production, the more we felt unsettled by the industry in general. As a result, Whispering Willow's product line will be palm free starting January 15th, 2019.