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Palm oil is a staple ingredient in many of our everyday products. In fact, it is in 50 percent of the packaged products we find in supermarkets. Today it is:
- used as a cooking oil
- the main ingredient in most margarine
- used in confectionary, ice-cream and ready-to-eat meals
- the base for most liquid detergents, soaps, and shampoos
It is so widely used today because of its great cooking properties – it maintains its properties even under high temperatures, its smooth and creamy texture and absence of smell make it a perfect ingredient in many recipes and, it has a natural preservative effect which extends the shelf life of food products.
Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade. By 2000, palm oil was the most produced and traded vegetable oil (FAO 2002), accounting for 40% of all vegetable oils traded internationally. By 2006, the percentage had risen to 65% (FAO).
Worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double again by 2020. New plantations are being developed and existing ones are being expanded in Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, as well as in Africa and Latin America.
But this expansion comes at the expense of tropical forest – the critical habitat for a large number of endangered species. Large areas of forests and degraded land are also being burnt, causing air pollution and haze problems for neighbouring countries.
So if palm oil is bad, why not replace it?
- Palm trees produce 4 – 10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. This would result in serious environmental damange, with the risk that more forests would need to be converted into agricultural land.
- In producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in the palm oil sector. Palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Stopping the production of palm oil altogether would create significant problems for these people who support their families by working in this industry.
- Replacing palm oil with other types of oil is not always feasible due to palm oil’s unique properties as a food ingredient. Using other oils would not give the products the same texture and taste that palm oil offers.
We believe that the issue here is not around the usage of palm oil, but around the way it is produced.
Sustainable palm oil
When produced unsustainably, palm oil will cause the deforestation and destruction of primary forests, or high conservation value areas that are home to protected species and biodiversity. In other cases, some oil palm plantations were developed without consulting local communities over the use of their land. Some have even been responsible for forcibly displacing people from their land. Violations of workers’ rights to fair payment and safe working conditions and other malpractices have also occurred.
Sustainable palm oil is produced according to a set of environmental and social criteria defined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These 8 principles and 39 practical criteria have been in place since 2008 and define the sustainable production of palm oil. They ensure that fundamental rights of previous land owners, local communities, plantation workers, small farmers and their families are respected and fully taken into account, that no new primary forests or high conservation value areas have been cleared for palm oil production since November 2005, and that mills and plantation owners minimize their environmental footprint.
This will help many growers significantly increase average yields per hectare, without further clearing of primary forests, peat lands or other high conservation value areas. The world’s production of palm oil will see continued growth, and companies can meet the escalating global demand for vegetable oil, and not at the expense of the environment and the people relying on the forests for their livelihoods.
What can we do in Singapore?
Ultimately, without demand there cannot be supply. The power lies in the hands of the consumer and your purchasing decisions.
Exercise your right today, and call for your favourite retailers and brands to
- start sourcing for certified sustainable palm oil
- clearly label palm oil in the list of ingredients used on the product packaging