Chances are, you consume a packaged product that contains palm oil every day. It is the most abundantly used oil in world, often hailed as the ‘miracle oil’ due to its efficiency and stability. But did you know that the palm oil used in your food, hair products, cosmetics and cleaning products are directly linked to major global issues such as deforestation, wildlife habitat loss, climate change and indigenous rights abuses?
Malaysia and Indonesia dominate global palm oil production. These two countries account for almost 90% of all palm oil produced worldwide, so during a trip to Borneo over the summer, I took some time to look into the impacts the palm oil industry has on the environment, and some considerations we can all take in the battle to save the rainforests.
The majority of palm oil is still produced ignoring sustainable measures. In central Sabah, the land looks baron. Dried up, arid. You can only imagine what this vast space once was. Plantations are constantly under construction, and land that was once rich in biodiversity is now chopped and churned in the cyclic regurgitation of palm plantations for the purposes of mass palm oil production and exportation. After several hours of driving through central Sabah, I stopped to capture this scene, where in all directions, palm trees stretch as far as the eye can see.
In Northern Borneo, over 70 different species of palm tree are known to grow within the rainforest. These areas are the natural habitat of over 1000 different species of mammal, amphibian, bird and fish, over 100 of which are endemic to Borneo. However, sections of rainforest just like this have been cleared to make way for the sheer number of trees required to meet the global demand for palm oil.
In doing so, an unnecessary contribution to global warming is made. The process of photosynthesis within plants reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition to this, the micro-climates around these areas shift, due to the rainforest surface albedo (sun’s reflectivity) and the amount of water vapour released into the atmosphere.
In the midst of these new areas, palm oil mills release green house gases into the environment, as well as being responsible for other environmentally damaging pollutants such as palm oil mill effluent.
Whilst the Sabahan Government have designated protected areas of rainforest, deforestation in line with the continuing expansion of the palm oil industry has already had a major impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Destruction of habitat has lead iconic species such as the Orang Utan, Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Rhino to the verge of extinction.
Wildlife enthusiasts flock to the Kinabatangan river for a chance to see some of Borneo’s rarest animals. Species such as the Orang Utan are driven to the riverbanks as narrow strips of their rainforest habitat on the edge of the river are all that remain following large scale deforestation. In some areas, these strips of land are so insignificant, palm plantations can be seen just a few metres away from the water.
Tankers transport palm oil far and wide around Borneo. Here, the tankers drive through an area completely consumed by palm plantations.
Instead of attempting to limit the supply and demand of palm oil, many such products are actively endorsed.
These problems can’t be solved by a blanket cut in usage of palm oil though. Life just isn’t that simple. With the yield of oil per hectare up to ten times greater than other vegetable oils such as sunflower and soy bean oil, shifting from palm oil to similar products could have an even more detrimental impact on the environment, not to mention the many balancing socio-economic consequences.
So what can we do? First of all be aware of what we are consuming. Does the product use RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) certified oil? Is there an alternative product that eliminates the usage of vegetable oils altogether? Small changes can go a long way towards encouraging a large scale shift in the attitudes of sustainable palm oil consumption.