The pitfalls of the palm oil industry are devastating, but experts say that boycotting the use of such a ubiquitous ingredient won't do any good—only a halt to deforestation, along with a widespread consumer fight for higher sustainable standards will.
Photo via Flickr user Mark Dumont
Rainforest devastation, land grabbing from rightful owners, wildlife pushed to the point extinction, child exploitation: All are well-documented pitfalls of the industry behind a product that has become so ubiquitous it's frightening—palm oil, or the lynchpin of the fatty junk food that so many of us fatty Westerners are hooked on.
We are, in our two-hourly need for snacky sustenance, destroying the world. Around one in ten supermarket products are thought to contain palm oil—in case your secondary school maths is out, that's 10 percent of everything that's on sale. You'll find it in items including, but not limited to, chocolate, biscuits, cakes, pastry, bread, crackers, donuts, crisps, pre-battered fish and chicken, pizza, ice cream, cereal, peanut butter, and margarine. And that's just food. It's also in many of your household products like toothpaste and shampoo, unless you're like me and buy your shampoo from a batty vegan in Bristol who goes by the name Jimbo.
Realistically, unless you eat like Gwyneth Paltrow on a particularly punishing detox, chances are you've probably consumed this potentially planet-destroying ingredient once a day, every day of your life. Palm oil is so rich that it can make even the most unyielding ingredients squidgy, delicious, and moreish. Many companies try to use "sustainable" palm oil—a vague term that roughly equates to plantations not actively burning down natural habitats in Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea, or Africa in order to grow a crop that makes your packet of Wotsits extra-tasty.
Our appetite for the stuff isn't slowing down, either, and the environmental repercussions are terrifying. In Borneo alone, a once-plentiful orangutan habitat has been reduced by 55 percent in the last 20 years. Why? The forests they live in are largely cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. Around 50 are killed every week and they could become extinct in a few decades. These forests are also vital to absorb the massive amount of carbon humans and our crappy cars generate every year, meaning that cutting them down speeds up global warming. Just to put things into context, there are 11 million hectares of palm plantations on the planet and counting.
You read stats like those above and think, Jesus, that's horrendous, the world is fucked. But if palm oil is such a ubiquitous ingredient in products we put in and on our bodies on a daily basis, how can we unpick the cycle? What can the average person, on an average day, do about it? Is it actually possible to give up palm oil? As a white, middle-class, vegetarian 20-something, boycotting it was the only thing I could think of to try. How hard could it be?
The answer is: very. It is not possible to give up palm oil long-term or with a modicum of ease. On day one of my no-palm-oil diet I congratulated myself with a slice of peanut butter on toast before Googling its compounds. It went in the bin. Try turning down a chocolate digestive one of your colleagues offers you with, "Ah, actually, it contains palm oil, soo…" and witness the look of confused pity on their face. You'll see what I mean. If you like to snack (don't lie to yourself—of course you do) choosing to omit an ingredient as widely used as palm oil is a little like trying not to burp after a beer.
In order to avoid palm oil, you have to become insanely hawk-like with ingredient labels. Every time I read "vegetable oil" on the back of a packet, I assumed it was palm oil as, yes, it is legal to give this ever-so-slightly misleading description. I came to rely on the app Buycott, which scans the barcode of products to say whether the manufacturer uses palm oil or not. It feels very first-generation, though, and I often stumbled out of the supermarket with only six item—four of which were cans of beer. It also took around half an hour to find out that most things I needed to buy were "bad".
Even "good" places such as Pret A Manger use palm oil, although they tell me that they only use a "small amount" and that it's "always sustainable." Sainsbury's use 80 percent certified sustainable palm oil and Tesco are working towards only using the sustainable stuff by 2015. When I pointed to them that their press release on the matter was old, however, and asked how the whole 2015 aim was coming along, I didn't get a reply.
Boycotting palm oil doesn't just affect grocery shopping, though. Late-night stumbles into the kebab shop are off-limits as even a seemingly innocuous bag of chips comes with hidden menace—they're often fried in the stuff. Consequently, after a few days, I found myself subsisting on rice and chickpeas because I was so wary of there being surreptitious palm oil in everything I took off the shelves. I even saw that a bag of roasted almonds from Marks & Spencer were cooked in it.
I began to wonder if it was worth it. What good could one person boycotting palm oil do anyway? Not much, says Rhett Butler, founder and president of rainforest conservation website Mongabay. "Boycotts were a widely discussed approach between 2006-2008," he explains. "Pushing for stronger standards is more conventional now. A bunch of companies have signed on promise to stop deforestation and to just use land that's already been destroyed."
If he thinks boycotting is not a realistic solution, what can we do? "As long as we prioritise cheap food, palm oil is going to be in there because it is low-cost," he says. Again, though, with half the world living on less than $2.50 (£1.55) a day, cheap food isn't just the easy option—it's a lifeline. Certainly in the Western world, for those who aren't educated in how to use fresh ingredients frugally, if you can ensure your children don't go to bed hungry, in the dark, by feeding them frozen fish and chips from the supermarket, the implications of the palm oil within those products just isn't going to come into it. Why would it? The immediate reality is hard enough. All those horrendous figures feel far, far away from your kitchen table.
Christopher Wille of the Rainforest Alliance says that it's not actually palm oil that's the problem—it's the way it's grown. "Oil palm is a bounteous and valuable crop, he says. "It's highly productive compared to other oils, creates jobs and revenues and can be used in an amazing variety of products." It was only visiting Borneo—something he'd wanted to do since he was a kid—that made him see the devastating effects of bad production. "I found that the rainforest of my dreams had been cleared for plantations," he says. "It was oil palm from horizon to horizon. I'd spent 20 years in Central America and had seen the rainforest destroyed for farms and cattle ranches, so I should have been better prepared. But the devastation in Indonesia is especially shocking because it's so recent. Flying over, you can see the forests being burned right now."
So what is the heart of the battle here? Stopping deforestation, says Wille, along with consumers fighting for both "higher sustainable standards" and a greater transparency on how palm oil is used in what they're eating. "The hope is that companies will continue making changes to meet market demand. Some lobby for alternative oils, but all farming has a similar impact."
Swapping palm for something like coconut oil would have the same impact, then? "Right. Palm is by far the most productive per hectare used, so better to fix it than try to replace it—or avoid it."
The conclusion? My boycott was pretty much a waste of time. If you care about the implications of palm oil, check labels, look for RSPO, Rainforest Alliance or other sustainable certification on packaging, write emails to companies, ask if manufacturers are committed to zero deforestation. Be that guy. We all need to be that guy. Because, as delicious as Monster Munch is, a few mouthfuls of vinegary crisps isn't worth what's happening right now.