Palm oil : What stakes ? (part 1)
It is a well-known fact that palm oil is currently at the heart of the debate. Opinions on the use of this kind of oil differ depending on the point of view. Some focus on its benefits and others on its misdeeds. It is important to know what are the real impacts of palm oil consumption.
What is palm oil ?
This vegetable oil is extracted thanks to the method of hot pressure from the fruit pulp of the oil palm. Mostly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in South America, this tree grows quickly and can produce for 25 to 35 years. Its fruits are cultivable throughout the year and twice a month. Palm oil must be dissociated from palm kernel oil, which will be extracted from the kernel of the fruit.
It is the most consumed butterfat in the world and its demand continues to grow over the years. This high consumption is explained by the fact that it has many advantages, especially for industrialists. Palm oil is inexpensive and easy to extract. In addition, it is rich in fatty acids, and therefore gives a mellowness, but also a certain crispness to the product. It also has good resistance to heat and oxidation.
Thus, it is found in 80% of food products in the world. Examples may be crisps, spreads, cakes, ready-made dishes, and even soups, etc. It will also be found in about 20% of cosmetics, detergents and paints, but also in the composition of some biofuels since 2005.
There are many aspects of the implication of the use of palm oil, however we will look in this first part the environmental impacts.
The impact on the environment and the question of organic or sustainable palm oil
At the environmental level, palm oil can be interesting. It produces more food on less surface, compared to other vegetable oils and can therefore contribute to a better preservation of natural resources. As like many plantations, the actual impact will depend on the origin of the product, its growing conditions, its exploitation and the industrial processes used.
It is interesting to know that there are three types of plantations: conventional, organic and sustainable.
First of all we will focus on conventional palm oil. It is well known that the forest must be removed to produce palm oil. We are witnessing massive deforestation, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which provide about 85% of global consumption. In Indonesia, it’s the equivalent of a football field that disappears every 15 seconds.
This deforestation will have different impacts :
- The destruction of the habitat of many species of animals including the last 3 species of orangutans on the planet, tigers, etc. This danger also affects plants and the inhabitants of the forests.
- The production of greenhouse gases. Forests, often burned, are large absorbers of carbon dioxide and their destruction contributes to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. On a global scale, deforestation would be responsible for 15 to 20% of the increase in greenhouse gases. Refineries, agricultural machinery and the spreading of fertilizers and pesticides are also responsible for the release of harmful gases.
- The destruction of the soil. Forests protect the ecosystem against degradation and reduce the risk of erosion by water and wind. Let’s imagine the places where there are monsoons, it can have serious consequences, with the destruction of the soil. There is no longer any protection against violent rains and therefore the risks of mudslides, landslides and floods in valleys increase.
Then we will consider organic palm oil, mainly produced in Colombia and Ghana. For crops that meet strict specifications, an Ecocert Green life certification can be given to palm oils. For example, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not accepted.
However, organic certification is not necessarily fair. Ecocert’s fair ESR certification exists, but it is not very associated with palm oil plantations. Projects in organic farming can however be associated with fair trade certifications, respecting the rather demanding specifications of “Fair For Life“.
Finally, there is sustainable palm oil. The RSPO (Roundtable on sustainable palm oil) is an organization created in 2004, bringing together producers, food industrialists and Non-Governmental Organizations, to make conventional palm oil “sustainable”. A palm oil can obtain RSPO certification, meeting a set of 39 social and environmental criteria such as reforestation of used land, social and environmental guarantees, traceability, etc.
However, this certification does not necessarily mean that the oil used is sustainable. The Green Palm RSPO label, created in 2008, actually functions as a sales platform. A company can pay a sum for each tonne of sustainably produced palm oil. By this way, the manufacturer buys a certificate that will allow him to put the GreenPalm logo on his products. Moreover, while it is an important element in a certification system, this organization does not have effective complaint procedures and control is insufficient.
Finally, whether for organic or sustainable palm oil, deforestation and the burning of the recovered wood is not prohibited. The removal of forests is inevitable for palm oil production and there is no sustainable means of production to meet the current global demand for palm oil.