The Problem with Palm Oil

Palm oil - used in everything from packaged foods you see on supermarket shelves, the cookies you’re tempted to buy at the local bake stall, to the cosmetics that sit around your bathroom sink. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and for good reason. But the question is, is it environmentally sustainable?

Unlike other vegetable oil plants such as olive, soy & coconut, palm oil has a very high yield, with a hectare of palm trees producing 15 tonnes a year. A plantation takes minimal effort to maintain and will produce fruit year round in sub-tropical climates.

So what is the main issue with palm oil? If it’s not that producing it causes deforestation in tropical countries which threatens exotic creatures, or that palm oil plantations abuse the human rights of workers in plantations - it’s that it’s such an effective crop with a high demand.

From Indonesia & Malaysia to India where most of the global supply of palm oil comes from currently, palm oil can be seen as striking green gold on the locals land. A hectare of crude palm oil sells for approx. NZD$1000 per year. Malaysia currently has 4.5 million hectares of palm trees!

In these countries which have a low cost of living, this income from low labour plantations results in wealthy farm owners.

If you’re against the deforestation of native rain forests or think that workers shouldn’t be exploited and paid fairly, then abstaining from using goods that contain palm oil seems like a good idea.

However, calling it quits from palm oil products may not be the answer. The industry provides income to many people in developing countries as well as being used extensively across a wide range of products and especially shows potential as a sustainable source of bio fuel.

Instead, look for the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified sustainable labels. Products with this label adhere to principle industry standards around transparency of operations, compliance with the law and commitment to creating a fair and sustainable working environment.

Whilst it is important to be wary of palm oil products and all the aliases it hides behind, it’s more important to ensure that the palm oil used in these products are sustainably sourced.