I’m going to say something that may surprise you: I don’t avoid palm oil. No, it’s not that I don’t care about orangutans. It’s because it’s not clear to me that this is better for the planet. In fact, I’m afraid it could do more harm.
Research shows that despite the well-known problems associated with palm oil, it’s still the best we’re going to get. It is very efficient, and to switch to alternative oils would use up to 9 times the amount of land, displacing the deforestation and biodiversity loss to other places and to other wildlife, such as bears and jaguars.
My brand of soap makes a big show of the fact it is palm oil-free, but it does contain coconut oil, which is just as bad. Since we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, businesses that promote themselves as palm oil free without first checking the scientific evidence are enormously irresponsible.
There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is. It is never just about one ingredient. The way something is produced and transported is also important. And food production can have many impacts – including greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, pollution, soil erosion……..deforestation and biodiversity loss are only two of many issues to consider. And most products that contain palm oil, such as cosmetics and processed foods, have many different ingredients in them. So unless you can be sure that ALL the ingredients and processes involved in an alternative product are more sustainable than the one containing palm oil, it’s hard to be sure that simply switching to something else is going to be better for the environment.
Products containing palm oil often contain lots of sugar too, which is a major contributor to biodiversity loss, climate change and water scarcity, so choosing which chocolates to buy on the basis of whether or not it contains palm oil will only do so much. Nut spreads are a popular choice among the environmentally aware, and it is possible to find brands that don’t contain any type of oil, which bypasses that problem. But it is still most likely the way the nuts themselves are grown and processed that determines the sustainability of the product, as this is the main ingredient.
Focussing on specific ingredients is of secondary importance to looking at our patterns of consumption. A glance at many of the products that palm oil is used for – cosmetics, junk food, sweets, biofuels – show that we could live without many of these things (or at least reduce our consumption of them) without a great loss to our wellbeing. And around a third of all food produced goes to waste anyway. If you want to reduce the environmental impacts of consumption, then these are all good places to start.
What about sustainably sourced palm oil? According to the research, it is ‘marginally’ better in terms of preventing deforestation. But even if it was possible to buy Mars Bars made with sustainably sourced palm oil, that would still mean that land and other resources are being used to produce confectionery rather than being left for wildlife, or being utilised to produce more nutritious foods. Consumption of junk foods can be seen as a form of food waste.
That’s not to say that there are no benefits to buying certified palm oil. It’s important to create the demand for sustainably produced food. It is to say that careful sourcing alone, without a change in patterns of consumption, will not fix it.
The beauty products we buy on a whim but never really use costs the planet. The daily meat-and-two-veg habit we always mean to cut down on is contributing to species loss. The slices of pizza we throw away because we couldn’t manage to eat it all, the stale bread we chuck out, the sweet things we give as gifts because we feel obliged to give something but don’t know what else to get……all these are contributing to the destruction of habitats, climate change and water scarcity. And every piece of fast fashion we buy but hardly wear, every unnecessary journey by car or by plane, every new gadget we have to have even though the old one still works, adds to the climate breakdown which threatens all life.
And please, let’s stop giving free advertising to big businesses who don’t take the time to do their research.