Palm oil is one of the most hated crops. It's cheap, causes arguments wherever it's talked about and is a big reason why trees are being cut down all over the world. It's hard to find something that doesn't have palm oil in it. It's in food, makeup, soap, and even ink.
Even though many activist groups try to get rid of it, it is still one of the most common ingredients. In fact, over 73 million tons of it are used every year. Do you ask why? Because of how cheap and useful it is, the African oil palm can make 10 times as much oil as soybeans and other vegetable oils.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is made from plants of oil palm trees and can be eaten. There are two types of oil produced by this tree: palm kernel oil, which is obtained by crushing the pit in the middle, and crude palm oil, which comes from the flesh. Nowadays palm oil is in over half of grocery store items.
What's wrong with palm oil and what a sad history it has?
Because of its history of colonialism and exploitation, palm oil has a negative reputation. It first got into the economy in the 1500s, when slaves were forced to eat it on transatlantic slave trade ships. When Europeans found out that palm oil could help heal bruises and other injuries, they used it on slaves before selling them at auction.
Soon after, in the late 1700s, British companies started putting it in soap. In 1807, the Brits got rid of the slave trade, which made traders look for legal products. In the years that followed, Britain lowered the taxes on palm oil, which made Africa start making it.
By 1840, palm oil was cheap enough to be used instead of other things like wax and soap. It used to be a luxury item, but now almost everyone has it. By adding chemicals, they turned it into a tasteless ingredient that could be used instead of more expensive fats.
In the 1990s, when trans fat was made illegal, palm oil was used instead because it was cheaper and did the same job. People couldn't even tell one from another. It was used to make margarine yellow and helped the product stay solid at room temperature.
What's going on with palm oil today?
Even though palm oil is used in various industries, the EU has decided to stop using palm oil because of growing concerns about forest loss. On the contrary, countries like Indonesia aren't ready to give up using palm oil in biodiesel production.
Even though we're not where we need to be in the fight against palm oil, endangered animals are getting more attention. People are learning that oil palm plantations are putting almost 200 species at risk of extinction. This includes elephants, orangutans, and tigers that live in the African forest.
Why not try a different kind of vegetable oil?
Some experts say that switching from palm oil to other oil crops could make things worse because these other crops would need more land to grow.
There aren't many places on Earth that generate vegetable oil that can match palm oil's global output, which provides for 40 percent of all vegetable oil. Take coconut or sunflower oil as an example. To get the same amount, you would need 10 times more land. This would cause more problems in other parts of the world and threaten different habitats.
There are ways to make palm oil that are good for the environment, and we hope that these will become popular for long-term use and save our planet. Using small-scale agroforestry techniques, like those used in Africa, can save money and the environment.
To stop deforestation at the rate it is now, more companies need to be open about how they use and get palm oil. In addition, they need to set stricter rules to protect nature and human rights.
If a lot of customers take action and no longer accept it, the problem will have an impact. However, many buyers nowadays are not ready to pay higher prices for products of better quality made without palm oil. Until that happens, the effects of cheap palm oil on the environment and on weak communities will be kept.