The rainforests of Indonesia a home to thousands of wildlife species including several critically endangered animals
Palm oil. You will no doubt have heard about it by now. Plastered all over the media are distressing images of deforestation and shocking statistics indicating just how much forest and in turn, animals, are lost. We feel horror and decide to avoid it at all costs but once we go out to the shops, it is easy to forget about what's happening half way across the world, especially when you have to check each and every label of anything you buy. However, there is 1 very simple solution to successfully removing palm oil from your life and if I can change the habits of one person through this article and educate them on how to avoid it, I would class that as a success. In this battle to save our rainforests, every body counts.
What is Palm Oil and Why Do We Use It?
Before we discuss solutions, it's important to understand what palm oil is and why it is being used in the first place. Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit. It spiralled into production as a result of its high production yield. Each palm tree can be harvested twice a month and each tree produces many kilos of palm oil at a time. As a result you can get a lot of oil from one plantation. This, in theory, makes palm oil a more environmentally friendly option compared to soya or rapeseed for example where you need roughly 9 times the amount of land and much more energy to get the same quantity of oil.
Simply, palm oil is not used due to any specific benefits other than the fact that the demand for vegetable oil is high and palm oil is the most efficient way to generate vegetable oil.
Demand for vegetable oil is ever-increasing. It is used in just about everything from chocolate bars to cakes to vegetable spreads to pet food to toothpaste. I really could go on here! It is this growing demand for vegetable oil that is putting our planet under immense strain.
It's estimated that palm oil plantations currently take up around 25 billion hectares of land
The Damage Palm Oil has on the Rainforests
Palm trees grow well in tropical climates, the same climates where rainforests have made their homes. Therefore, to make way for palm oil plantation, thousands of hectares of forest are cleared away each year. Palm oil plantations currently cover 18 million hectares in Indonesia which proves 70% of the world's palm oil. To put that in perspective, that's twice the size of Belgium! That extortionate size isn't enough to satisfy our desire for palm oil. Thousands of hectares of forest are continually being cleared away to make room for more plantations. As a result, the rainforest is diminishing at an alarming rate.
The Damage Palm Oil has on Wildlife
Thousands of species of animals make the rainforests of Indonesia their homes. Some of these animals don't exist anywhere else on the planet. The most notable example is the orangutang whose numbers have dropped significantly as a result of deforestation. It's estimated that between 1,000 and 5,000 orangutans are killed every year due to palm oil.
Orangutans live their entire lives up in trees. If the trees are destroyed then they have nowhere to live and will simply die. These primates only live in Indonesia so if their homes are destroyed there, the species will go extinct.
Orangutans are only found in Indonesia where 70% of the world's palm oil is produced
It's not just the orangutans who are suffering. The Sumatran tiger is a sub-species of tiger that is only found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. There is estimated to be less than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild today, making them critically endangered. In 1978 there were thought to be 1,000 Sumatran tigers left meaning that within 25 years, just over half of the population has been wiped out and this is as a result of Sumatra losing 50% of its rainforest in that time. It is also shocking to know that 3 species of tiger used to live in Indonesia. This number has reduced to only one and now that species is very much on the brink.
The destruction of the Sumatran tiger's home also means that their food is becoming more scarce. The tigers are forced ever closer to human settlements which in turn creates human-wildlife conflict. Livestock and pets are easy prey for a hungry tiger and there have even been killings of villagers by tigers in search for food. As a result, any 'dangerous' tigers are incarcerated or worse still, killed. It is a tragic situation that wouldn't have come to be had the tigers been left alone in their rainforest homes.
Within the last 25 years 50% of Sumatran tigers have been wiped out as a result of deforestation
The Damage Palm Oil has on Indonesian Residents
It's not just the wildlife that is suffering as a result of our greed. The people of Indonesia are also taking a hit as a result of the growing palm oil plantations. Firstly, as mentioned, the human-wildlife conflict is growing and villagers are more at risk from wildlife encounters.
Secondly, Indonesia has many indigenous tribes who for centuries have lived nomadic lives entirely at one with nature. The government has stolen land of the indigenous tribes and given it to palm oil companies. As their forest shrinks, these tribes are dying out, either by violent encounters with people or are forced to integrate with society. It would be terribly sad to lose these tribes altogether.
Palm oil production includes burning which creates a lot of toxic fumes that are starting to impact major cities in the form of 'smog'. Inhaled, this 'smog' is very bad for us and can lead to death. Each year hundreds of thousands of human lives are lost as a result of these toxic fumes. Of course, other deforestation industries are responsible for fires. However, roughly 20% of these fires can be traced back to the palm oil industry.
An estimated 20% of toxic fumes in Asia are as a result of palm oil production
As well as the physical implications that palm oil has on the locals of Indonesia, there are severe economic effects too. As a result of the haze or 'smog', billions of dollars are spent each year on health care.
Last year Indonesia exported $18.6 billion worth of palm oil. That's a terrific amount of money. However, it only appears to be the palm oil companies that are profiting from this and not the individual farmers who work hard to produce the crops. Claims that poverty in Indonesia has reduced as a result of the palm oil industry has been disputed by palm oil farmers, who are mostly individual smallholders. Farmers who own 2 hectares of palm oil forests can barely afford to send their children to school. They claim the only people benefiting from it are the larger palm oil companies.
Individual palm oil farmers don't experience much financial benefit from palm oil and can still barely afford to send their children to school
How Can We Help?
The key way to help prevent any more deforestation is for the importers of palm oil to consume less of it - that's us. However, it's very important to remember why palm oil is used in the first place. It is a high yield crop and takes up less space than other vegetable-oil-producing-crops so it isn't a case of jumping from one ingredient to another as that could cause more damage. No, the only way to help the cause that I can see is to consume less.
How Can We Consume Less?
1. Cut out Chocolates, Biscuits and Cakes from your Diet and Make Your own Instead
It's important that we identify which products palm oil is used in. One of the key industries is confectionary and that includes, chocolate bars, biscuits and cakes. These are 'luxury items'. You do not need chocolates and biscuits to survive. In fact, you'd be a whole lot better off without these in your diet so that kills 2 birds in 1 stone if you stop buying them. Plus, reading the labels may not be enough as if they don't use palm oil, they may use another oil that contributes negatively to the environment.
It is so hard to find confectionary products without palm oil. Sometimes the name takes a different form such as 'vegetable oils (palm)' or 'palm fat' or anything to do with palm basically. When I went to the supermarket the other day, I was looking at the back labels of products for ages, trying to find one without palm oil. I did not succeed. Even supposedly eco-friendly alternatives such as 'Green & Blacks' used palm oil.
Most chocolates, biscuits and cakes contain palm oil
However, if you're anything like me and can't resist the odd sweet treat every once in a while, it's alright! I've found a palm-oil free alternative. Make your own chocolate. Before you roll your eyes at me and complain you don't have the time, you should no it's a lot simpler than you think. Here's my recipe:
- Pure 100% cocoa chunks (I use this one from Madagascar)
- Natural, unrefined cane sugar
- 1 x tub cream or a vegan alternative such as natural coconut yoghurt
- Vanilla flavouring (to taste)
I use a 50/50 ratio with the cocoa and sugar.
1. Heat a bowl of water over some boiling water on the hob. I like to put a glass bowl within my steamer which sits on top of a boiling pan.
2. Add the cocoa and the sugar to the bowl and wait until the cocoa starts to melt.
3. Mix the cocoa and sugar together until you have an even consistency.
4. Take the bowl off the hob and add the cream or yoghurt.
5. Mix the cream into the mixture gradually until the mixture is dark brown and smooth in consistency.
6. Pour your chocolate into small ramekins or bowls, cover with foil and put in the fridge.
7. After a few hours your chocolate will be ready!
2. Cut out Vegetable Spreads from your Diet
90% of vegetable spreads contain palm oil. The whole concept behind these spreads is vegetable oil so even if there is no palm oil in the spread, there could be another oil which is damaging for the environment. Here are some palm oil free alternatives that you can spread across your toast:
1. 100% butter from organic and ethically farmed sources (I get my butter from Riverford who ensure the cows are only fed grass and they are played relaxing classical music as they are milked).
2. Avocados! If you gently heat up your avocado in the microwave before spreading, it makes it extra soft and nice and warm for your toast. Then you can spread the avocado with a knife, just like you would with a usual spread. I'd recommend using fresh organic avocados and not a pre-made spread 😉 I also buy my avocados from Riverford as they come loose without any plastics!
Avocado spread on toast is a palm oil-free alternative to vegetable spreads
3. Make Your Own Bread with a Bread-Maker
Surprisingly many breads that you purchase from the supermarket contain palm oil. As well as this, they tend to include a whole host of unhealthy additives such as sugar, salt and even preservatives. I bought my own bread-maker a few months ago and I'm not even joking, it has changed my life! The beauty of a bread-maker is that it just makes the bread itself. I literally just put the ingredients in the bread-maker and set it going. 6 hours later, I have a lovely loaf of fresh (palm oil-free) bread!
I bought The Sana Smart bread-maker which comes from the Czech Republic. The reason for choosing this bread-maker was down to its stainless-steel container (yay, no plastic!) and good reviews. Having a stainless-steel container also means that you can add seeds to your bread for extra goodness (seeds would rip at a plastic lining).
Not only does making your own bread reduce the need for palm oil, you are also cutting out on single-use plastics as bread flour comes in paper and bread from supermarkets normally comes in plastic. It's also cheaper to make your own bread.
If you want to really be healthy and eco-friendly I also recommend making your own yeast instead of buying quick-yeast. But that's a story for another day!
Making your own bread is not only better for the environment, it's better for your health too
4. Always check the labels!
I could easily make this article hundreds of points long talking about exactly how to remove or substitute each and every product in your lifestyle for a palm oil-free alternative but I doubt anyone would stick around for all that info so I'm gonna break it down with one final step.
Check the labels of everything you purchase to ensure there's no palm oil in. Palm oil lurks in the most unlikely places. I was even sad to see it was in fizzy drinks such as Coke! For a list of the type of products when you tend to find palm oil, check out this website.
I hope that you decide to make a positive step forward today and work to eliminate palm oil from your life. It can be tricky but step by step at a time, we can make the world a better place.
Do you have any tips to reducing palm oil use? Let me know in the comments below!