Palm Oil Environmental Concerns
Like most things in life there are two sides to a story. We have read that palm oil has environmental concerns yet we also read about its health benefits such as its ability to raise good cholesterol and its antioxidant qualities.
Health benefits aside, palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) and palm kernel oil have received more attention lately for their negative impact on the environment. So what are the palm oil environmental concerns?
Deforestation and CO2 Emissions:
Palm oil is the world's most productive oilseed but recent expansion has taken a heavy toll on forests across Southeast Asia. A single hectare (2.5 acres) can produce up to 7 tons of oil, many times what would be produced from the same area of corn, soy, or canola.
Large palm plantations are in Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia is now the third leading producer of greenhouse gases, right behind USA and China.
New palm oil plantations are created through deforestation of rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia.
Peatlands are swampy areas where the soil is made of peat, which is decomposed vegetation. Peat acts as a sponge, soaking up water & moisture which aids in flood prevention. Peat also stores a large amount of carbon.
When peatland are disturbed during deforestation, the stored carbon reacts with air to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas. As the ground is also drained of water the area is more susceptible to fires.
Extinction of Endangered Animals:
These Asian rainforest are home to the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger, and the pygmy elephant which are all threatened by creation of more palm oil plantations.
Palm oil plantations support a very low level of biodiversity. Nearly 90% of wildlife disappears from the area when it is converted to a plantation.
Satellite imagery shows Sumatra has lost 48% of its natural forest cover since 1985 (WFF, 2008), and it is estimated that up to 800 orangutan are being lost every years as a result of deforestation and hunting.
At the current rate of decline, orangutans will be extinct in Sumatra in less than 10 years.
What About Palm Oil as a Renewable Fuel Source?
Palm oil is relatively inexpensive which makes it a desirable ingredient to keep profit margins up despite the fact that new plantations of palm oil are challenging to the environment. The use of palm oil has increased largely due to its high demand in soaps, cosmetics, food, cleaning agents and even for biofuel.
However, a number of studies have found that palm oil based biodiesel fails to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional fossil fuels once deforestation is factored into the lifecycle analysis.
The US Environmental Protection Agency recently ruled that palm oil biodiesel shouldn't qualitfy as a low carbon fuel. There is some question as to whether the EPA made erroneous estimates of palm biodiesel CO2 emission. Currently the EPA will approve a biofuel having an emission savings value of 20% or more.
Since the EPA recently claimed that palm oil only had an emission savings of 17% compared to fossil diesel, it did not approve palm oil as a biofuel under the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS 2).
Should Palm Oil Be Banned?
By no means. However, environmental concerns should give us reasons to scrutinize its use and motivate us to evaluate the products we use more closely.
For example, many makers of handmade soaps simply list "saponified oils" or list palm oil as "vegetable oil'. Although we can't speculate about their reasons for labeling their product in such a manner, it coud be to make less expensive fats (such as tallow, lard and canola & palm oil) sound more intriguing. If the soap makes any claim such as being moisturizing, then by law, the label needs to include a full ingredient list. Be an educated consumer and insist on full disclosure of their ingredients.
Ingredient labels will list all components in descending order by percent of the recipe. If you read "sodium palmate" among the top 3 ingredients then you are using a soap made primarily from palm oil. The "ate" ending of palmate simply means the palm oil was mixed with sodium hydroxide to transform the oil into soap. Some manufacturers think that the consumer will be put off by reading sodium hydroxide on the label, but in reality there is absolutely no sodium hydroxide remaining in the final soap!
Palm oil isn't going to go away and it doesn't need to. Throughout Malasia and Indonesia the palm oil industry provides many jobs and supports the economy. The goal should not be to eliminate this valuable resource, but rather to find means to keep it renewable and in balance with the environment. To eliminate palm oil would simply make the demand of other oils go up, and most other oil crops require much more land to cultivate for the same quantity of oil.
Here at German Soap Box we have elected to reduce our utilization of palm oil. Check any of our soap labels and you will notice that palm or palm kernel oil are listed after many other moisurizing & soothing butters such as shea and cocoa and even olive & avocado oil. Future product lines may also provide the option to choose palm free.
If Palm Oil Environmental Concerns Continue, What Can I Do?
Let's keep in mind that palm oil is bad for the environment only when we allow the demand to outstrip our resources. At the present time India is the largest importer of palm oil, but according to Greenpeace, no Indian companies have committed to ensuring that the palm oil they buy doesn't contribute to deforestation.
In the US, Procter & Gamble, which uses palm oil in soap, shampoos and detergents, says: "P&G uses very little palm oil - about 1 percent of a worldwide production of palm and its derivatives." One percent of global production is 380,000 tons a years. P&G says it hopes to source a sustainable supply by 2015.
Another large corporation, Unilever, was instrumental in setting up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm OIl (RSPO) together with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). However, Unilever is the world's biggest user of palm oil, using up 1.36 million tons a years (for food and soap products such as Dove), or 4% of the global supply.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm OIl (RSPO), an initiative established to reduce the environmental impact of palm oil production, has had critics saying that the RSPO allows participants to certify only some of their holdings or claim membership without actually producing "greener" palm oil.
German Soap Box only secures its palm oil from sustainable sources.
There is Hope for Progress!
Indonesia's largest palm oil company, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), put a 2011 forest policy in place which prohibits conversion of land with more than 35 tons of carbon per hectare. In June 2012, GAR published a carbon assessment of its holdings which moves the company toward a zero deforestation target.
Their committment to conservation has been confirmed via satellite imagery and review of legal documents from the Ministry of Forestry and local authorities.
The World Wildlife Fund announced that in 2011 more companies in Europe, Australia and Japan bought palm oil from certified sustainable sources than ever before! These simple changes to our buying behavior are the responsible actions needed to halt the irreversible loss of tropical rainforests.
German Soap Box believes palm oil is an extremely valuable natural, renewable resource and is also economical. However, the problem is not palm oil, but rather how suppliers cope with increasing demand. We will continue to monitor if the palm oil industry disrupts indigenous people, endangers biodiversity and human rights, and how it respects RSPO guidelines. If the industry is unable to restrict their destructive explansions, GSB reserves the right to reformulate all soaps without any palm oil.
Your consumer purchasing power is a highly effective tool in changing the industry's high rate of palm oil use. Your pocketbook will have the loudest voice over this issue and we hope you will support GSB's effort to reduce demand.