MONTREAL (CUP) — If you ever read the labels on packaged food boxes or hygiene products, chances are you will see palm oil listed in the ingredients.
It looks innocent enough because its name is a plant we all know and is not some chemical we can’t pronounce or containing more letters than we can count.
A saturated vegetable fat made from the fruit of palm trees, palm oil is used in everything from processed foods to toothpaste to bio-diesel fuel. It is cheap and easy to grow and that, combined with its range of uses, keeps palm oil in high demand.
Today, palm oil is grown in tropical areas such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and Colombia. But the plant is native to West Africa, where it is still produced in countries such as Benin, Kenya and Ghana. While production of the oil is said to have helped millions escape poverty in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, in the past decade there has been growing concern that cultivating palm oil comes at a great cost to the environment, to traditional societies and to human health.
Palm oil and the environment
In 2009, Indonesia was the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil. One of the major companies operating in Indonesia is Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology. SMART manages plantations, which cover a total area of about 135,500 hectares in Indonesia. The trees on these plantations yield 20.9 tonnes of fruit per hectare.
In a report released at the end of September, Greenpeace International accused SMART of destroying primary rainforest, which was previously untouched by humanity, through slash and burn methods.
This amounts to cutting down large areas of trees, which are hundreds of years old and then deliberately setting fires to clear the land.
“Deforestation globally contributes to 20 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions,” said Stephanie Goodwin, senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. She also alleges that not only is SMART clearing primary rainforest, they are clearing peat-land — a carbon-rich soil made up of dead plants — which takes decades to form.
“You’re not just cutting down trees and having those carbon emissions, you’re also getting carbon emissions from burning off a bunch of the carbon in the peat itself,” Goodwin explained.
“The Indonesian government has a law saying they cannot do any land conversion on peat-land and that is what they’re doing right now.”
The palm oil industry has created many jobs in developing countries but there are concerns that the costs to traditional societies outweigh the economic benefits that the industry brings.
On these Pacific Ocean islands, traditional economies do not function in the same way as waged societies do in the West. People practice subsistence agriculture and exchange is a custom based on reciprocity. Introducing these traditional societies to jobs and money changes the whole social fabric of a community.
“It really affects [their] traditional economies,” said Christine Jourdan, a sociology and anthropology professor at Concordia University. “It offers different types of opportunities for employment that did not exist before and which local people are very happy to have access to.”
Jourdan explained that the indigenous people there are happy for the creation of jobs because of the pressure to modernize and adapt to globalization, but that the plantation jobs are unspecified, labour-intensive and low-paying.
“It’s a problem because they need money so much and there is no alternative. Somehow they are trapped into being happy with that,” she said. Jourdan said the average oil palm plantation worker is earning $300 per month in Solomon Islands dollars, which equates to about $50 Canadian dollars.
“There are so many social costs attached to that because it’s not enough money to live properly.”
Traditional societies soon become dependent on the industry. Subsistence agriculture is replaced by store-bought foods and traditional land is bought up by the company and covered with the cash crop. Jourdan also explained that the men may have to leave the community for periods of time to go work on the plantations, changing the family dynamic and interfering with tradition and custom.
A threat to human health
“[Palm oil] is very bad for health because it’s full of saturated fats,” said Jourdan. “In places like the Solomons or Papua New Guinea, the only oil that’s available in small shops and in canteens around villages is palm oil and they have no choice [but to use it].”
She explained that the communities’ lack of choice is precisely what puts their health at risk.
“In Canada, first we have alternative choices and we are constantly being bombarded by information from the government that tells us not to eat [this] or not to eat that,” Jourdan said.
The World Health Organization confirms this health risk. In 2003, they first reported that palm oil raises blood-cholesterol levels. The oil, which is made up of saturated fats, raises the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels in the blood. LDL, which is known as the “bad” cholesterol, can slowly build up in the inner walls of one’s arteries. This build-up is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Towards sustainable production
Environmental risks, combined with a global call by environmental groups, led to the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It was formed in 2004 with the goal of creating a sustainable way to grow and use oil palm products. The organization gives certification to those companies who comply with RSPO standards of company transparency, environmental sustainability, protection of wildlife, and health and safety precautions for their employees.
Late last month, the RSPO’s grievance panel addressed claims that SMART, which is owned by Golden Agri Resources, had allegedly breached the RSPO’s code of conduct. This came weeks after U.S. fast-food chain Burger King announced that it would stop buying palm oil from the company.
Other corporations that have dropped SMART include British-Dutch food and hygiene product corporation Unilever, U.S. food and beverage corporation Kraft and Swiss food corporation NestlÃ©. The four companies stated that their reasons for discontinuing business with SMART were alleged environmental damage to the Borneo rainforest caused by the cultivation of oil palm in Indonesia.
Not everyone agrees that palm oil is a threat. The company at the heart of much of the debate, SMART, has posted numerous press releases to their website in recent weeks to deny the concerns brought up by Greenpeace and Burger King.