Palm Oil: Big Demand at a Bigger Cost
Palm oil has become a popular raw material as an inexpensive vegetable oil, a source of Vitamin E, and as an additive oil in cosmetics and lotions. It is listed on labels as vegetable oil and it can be found in margarine, cakes, cookies, breads and biscuits as well as in pet foods and equine feeds. We’re not talking about sustainable palm oil here, but at first glance, one would at least think palm oil a healthier alternative to corn and soy oils. However, there is a very dark side to the palm oil story.
Supplement companies have rushed to use palm oil as a source for “natural” Vitamin E, without ever telling consumers that palm oil extraction requires the toxic chemical Hexane for processing; just like corn and soy oils. The only way to know that the palm oil has not been processed with Hexane, is if the palm oil is certified organic. If a label does not say: “vitamin E from certified organic palm oil” it has been processed with Hexane.
Indonesia and Malaysia have become the world’s largest producer of palm oil. But this has come at a heavy environmental price: yearly some 340,000 hectares of rain forest are cleared to make way for more palm plantations which translates into 840,000 acres per year. These rainforests are home to the Sumatran tiger, the Asian elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutans, wild ox, barking deer, giant flying squirrels, gibbons, and the clouded leopard. The World Bank reports: “Indonesia is almost certainly undergoing a species extinction spasm of planetary proportions.”
Of the more than 400 land mammal species in Indonesia, 140 are threatened, and 15 of those are critically endangered. This includes the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, the Asian elephant, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. There are also the 112 threatened terrestrial birds, native to these rain forests.
Plantation corporations frequently set fires deliberately to clear the forest for palms, and animals are burned alive or killed as they try to escape. In 1997 almost 8,000 orangutans (1/3 of the population) were either burned to death or massacred as they tried to escape the fires.
The palm oil industry uses 25 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides; one of the most commonly used chemicals is the toxic herbicide paraquat dichloride.
The waste- water from palm oil mills per year averages 33 billion pounds, which is the equivalent to domestic sewage produced by 20 million people. Most of this waste- water is not treated at all. It is dumped into rivers, killing thousands of fish and contaminating the water for the local villages.
The demand for palm oil is forecast to double; reaching 40.5 million tons by 2020. To achieve that, palm plantations will have to plant 1,160 new square miles every year. Because of the world wide demand for palm oil which is inexpensive and can be used in a variety of products, palm corporations are expanding into Costa Rica, New Guinea, Cameroon, the South Pacific, and Columbia. Since palm oil does not contain trans fat, more food companies are switching over from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, to palm oil.
Sustainable palm oil and organic palm oil is available. In fact, Switzerland’s biggest supermarket chain, MIGROS, hires independent auditors to verify that its palm oil suppliers are meeting the environmental criteria for sustainable palm oil.
One-quarter of all the products found in grocery stores contain palm oil including products from Neutrogena, Aveda, Clinique, Unilver, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Kraft, Earth Balance, Nature’s Path, and Clif Bar – just to name a few.
We consumers have the power of our pocketbooks to make choices for our health, the health of our family and animals, and the well-being of the planet. Seek and demand organic and sustainable palm oil in the products you use; ask your feed companies and supplement companies to use organic palm for Vitamin E. Or we can simply help the planet by not purchasing products that contain non-organic or non- sustainable palm oil.