What you need to know about Palm Oil:
Palm oil has become a controversial ingredient because of two reasons:
- Its overly common usage
- Its environmental cultivation impact
What are goods we use that contain palm oil?
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is derived from a palm oil tree’s fruit. This plant flourishes with an abundance of rain and sun exposure, i.e. rainforests. In one year, 50 million tons of palm oil are produced, making up 30% of the world’s vegetable oil.
Over time, it has become a popular ingredient in food, cleaning products, cosmetics, the list goes on. Its natural preservative effect makes it a common placeholder for chemicals. It is also an efficient plant to cultivate considering it high yield per crop. Palm oil needs less than half the amount of land another oil producing plant would need. In turn, palm oil qualifies as one of the cheapest vegetable oils to produce.
What is the environmental impact of palm oil?
Due to its popularity, this crop has increased significantly and contributed to the deforestation issue. The continual and extreme damage to the rainforest, primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia (85% of the world’s palm oil supply), is degrading habitation for many endangered species. As a result, animal cruelty and climate change have entered the conversation. Conflict has also broken out with the local indigenous communities regarding the irresponsible cultivation.
But it's not so simple as just boycotting palm oil. Here's why...
The controversy regarding palm oil ultimately boils down to a key balancing question: How do we manage sustaining the current population against preserving limited resources?
The world population has roughly doubled since 1920 to about 7.6 billion people as of 2018. It took over 200,000 years for the world's population to reach 1 billion and only an additional 200 more to reach 7 billion. This growth is largely fueled by the benefits of technology, globalization, and other achievements that have made it possible to feed so many mouths from current resources. For example, in 1950, the average farmer’s output fed about 27 people. As of 2016, the average farmer’s output feeds around 164 people.
Prior civilizations: a crystal ball into what happens when the balance is upset
In prior civilizations, historians observed that populations often grew in times of abundant harvest, which could sometimes span decades. However, many of these civilizations would ultimately fall victim to deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, erosion of fertile ground, and other factors. Many of these outcomes were caused by the strain a growing population placed on limited or non-recovering resources. Whenever the population consumes more resources at a rate faster than they can be reproduced, competition for the remaining resources results, ultimately leading to collapse via war, conflict, and starvation. Examples from history include the Anasazi of southwestern North America, the Maya of Central America, and Easter Island. But there are also examples of civilizations such as the Norse in Iceland who after realizing the detrimental impact their actions had on their environment (namely deforestation), immediately sought to correct and mitigate the situation. These historical examples should serve as education for us today as we navigate our own environmental challenges.
Palm oil: the cost-effective oil enabling population growth
In the context of all of this, it is fair to say that the world population is growing at a pace that is threatening our resources. Palm oil has helped contribute to this growth. It requires 10x less land than the other top 3 seed crops (soya, rapeseed, and sunflower) and is found in nearly 50% of consumer goods from items like packaged foods, body lotion, lipstick, and more. Palm oil uses only 7% of the land worldwide to grow all vegetable oil crops but yields around a third of total vegetable oil production. It is a very efficient crop, making it cheaper to produce vs. other oils.
Deforestation: a triple whammy
Palm grows best in tropical environments around the equator, the same areas where you'd find rain forests and jungles. As a result, the demand for palm oil and the farmland necessary to grow it has led to wide deforestation. Besides endangering animals and the frail ecosystem within these tropical landscapes, palm oil production has led to increased carbon emissions in the following ways:
- Trees that would capture greenhouse gases humans produce are eliminated
- When clearing forests through the burning technique, stored carbon within the trees are released into the atmosphere
- What most often replaces the now-vanished forest, livestock and crops, generate massive amounts of even more greenhouse gases
This creates a triple whammy impact on our total carbon footprint. Deforestation on its own causes about 10% of worldwide carbon emissions and robs us of a crucial weapon in battling greenhouse gases.
The root of all evil has many complexities
The simple answer to all of this would be, on the surface, to stop all future palm oil production that leads to deforestation. However, this would have other adverse consequences:
- The livelihood of many farmers directly relies on palm oil production. Palm protection alone has lifted 1.3 million people out of poverty in Indonesia alone.
- Consumers benefit from affordable foods and goods that are produced with palm oil.
- If as a society we don't believe in any form of population control, we will need an efficient crop like palm to support the population. Producing vegetable oil via less efficient crops could result in even more deforestation.
What's being done?
As you can see, the subject of palm oil is extremely complex. Several organizations have stepped up to the plate to facilitate the sustainable production of palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has worked for over a decade to drive an industry-wide agreement on adopting a global standard.
We at b.a.r.e. soaps source our palm oil from producers certified by the RSPO, who have to adhere to the Sustainable Agriculture Standard for the crop’s production. The standard’s rigorous and detailed environmental, social, and economic criteria are designed to deliver the following:
- Biodiversity conservation / Protection of endangered species
- Natural resource conservation
- Setting aside a portion of land as forest reserve
- Providing workers with decent wages and protecting their ability to organize
- Following guidelines that determine how, when, and where timber/non-timber forest products are harvested
Certification, however is not the total solution. If it were perfect, deforestation wouldn’t be happening at the current levels. However, certification has led to increased transparency, and in 2017, RSPO reported that a total of 189,777 hectares of high conservation value were preserved from palm oil expansions and are currently managed by RSPO members. This grew 21% from 2016. Independent studies have also shown the impact certification has on protecting orangutan habitats and limiting deforestation, in some cases by a factor of 25 times compared to non-certified areas.
Given all of this, what is b.a.r.e. soaps' stance?
Although we are cognizant that certification is not a perfect solution, we still believe that including sustainably sourced palm in our bar soaps is the right step. Palm oil has historically been a popular soap ingredient due to its ability to harden a soap bar without causing the feeling of dryness on the skin after. We use a blend of oil in which palm is a portion the blend.
There are many articles and groups that encourage consumers to boycott palm oil. We don't think that's a good solution to the problem -- the same qualities of palm oil that helped support population growth are also the same reasons why we think it's important to have a more sustainable alternative in sourcing it.
- Palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil crop per hectare. It is so efficient that it produces up to ten times more oil than other leading oilseeds. Therefore, you actually need less land to produce the same amount of yield compared to other oils.
- Alternative oils have their fair share of issues and lead to other environmental sustainability challenges. Take soybean oil, which requires 6x more energy, 7x more nitrogen, and 14x more pesticides per tonne produced than palm oil. (Nitrogen, when it runs off into our water sources, can kill marine life). To meet the World Bank’s projected vegetable oil demand in 2020, palm oil would require only 6.3 million hectares of oil palm plantation whereas soybean oil would require an additional 42 million hectares! That’s about the size of California!
- The palm oil industry alleviates poverty in developing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil farming offers a long-term and stable source of income. In Malaysia, the industry provides direct employment for over half a million people and is often credited with being the fastest way of eradicating poverty
You vote with your dollar. Inform your vote.
We all share responsibility when it comes to this topic. At the most micro level, every consumer votes through how they spend their dollars. Our goal is to educate you on this complex and multi-faceted issue, allowing you to make informed and conscious decisions while shopping as you consider both the benefits and opportunity costs of different products.