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Palm Oil: These "Green Deserts" Aren't so "Green" - January 8, 2017

               Palm oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world and is found in many products that we use or eat on a daily basis. From cookies and chips, to the makeup you wear, the cleaners in your bathroom, to the fuel in your car, palm oil is everywhere. But a little bit of oil never hurt anyone, right? Wrong. The production of palm oil is one of the leading causes of global deforestation, along with other detrimental environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

                Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. These trees grow in humid climates located mostly in the tropics. Malaysia and Indonesia are two of the largest producers of palm oil, accounting for eighty-five percent of palm oil production. Palm oil production provides employment opportunities for natives; however, these opportunities come at a cost. Many indigenous people are forced out of their homes so that new plantations can be made. Some plantations deploy forced labor and child labor, where workers receive little or no pay.

                Construction of new plantations is very detrimental to both local and global environments. Rainforests and peatlands, which are carbon-rich swamps, are clear-cut and burned to create room for these plantations. The soil found in peatlands is extremely rich in carbon, so when they are burned all of the stored carbon is released. This is a major contributor to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, therefore also contributing to climate change. Due to these plantations, Indonesia produces the third highest greenhouse gas emissions, following China and the United States.

                As vital habitats are destroyed for the creation of new plantations, the animals that call these rainforests home are becoming endangered. Only about fifteen percent of these animals can survive the transition from rainforest to plantation. This is an eight-five percent loss of biodiversity in an ecosystem that is supposed to be the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. Organisms such as orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants are all experiencing habitat loss, thus increasing their vulnerability of becoming endangered or extinct. Nearly one third of mammal species in Indonesia are considered threatened, endangered, or critically endangered. Due to this lack of biodiversity found in palm oil plantations, they have been nicknamed “green deserts”. Sure, the trees may be bright and green, and may look inviting, but they cause many negative impacts.      

                Since rainforests are extremely diverse and provide habitats for thousands of organisms, why are they chosen to be clear cut instead of other areas of land? The answer to many is that it is “simpler”.   Less chemical fertilizers are needed than in other areas because the ash from the vegetation produces its own fertilizer. Also rainforests and peatlands produce timber which can be sold for additional profits. Simply put, rainforests are chosen for their monetary value with no regard for their ecological value.

                Knowing the negative environmental impacts, why are these plantations still being implemented? Oil palms are highly productive trees and the oil produced is extremely versatile. Oil palms can continuously produce fruit for up to thirty years, and provide more oil per hectare per year than any other oil bearing crop. The oil is then incorporated into many household items such as margarine, soaps, waxes, industrial lubricants, and biofuel. In 2010, over ninety percent of palm oil produced was used to manufacture food products, cosmetics, detergents, and candles.

                Another growing use of palm oil is biofuel. The impact that palm oil has on the climate is three times larger compared to other fossil fuels. Almost half of the fossil fuel imported into the European Union is biofuel that contains palm oil. The amount of palm oil that goes towards biofuel has dramatically increased in recent years; use of palm oil in biofuel has increased from eight percent in 2010 to forty-five percent in 2014. This increasing demand for palm oil in biofuel leads to greater pressure to produce and create more palm oil plantations.

                So what can we do to minimize the environmental effects of palm oil plantations? Begin by knowing what your food, household cleaners, and cosmetics are made from. Check the labels to see if palm oil is an ingredient; palm oil may be listed as palmitate, palmate, hydrated palm glycerides hexadecanoic, or palmitic acid. Support companies and products that are a part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO companies grow palm oil in a manner that is sustainable and has to meet certain criteria. Some of these criteria include not using land where endangered species live, monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring employees have a decent wage.

                While the RSPO is a step in the right direction, additional steps are still necessary to ensure that palm oil becomes a sustainable product. Purchasing products that are palm oil free or made by RSPO companies will support those companies who have made a commitment to the health of our environment and encourage other companies to make that commitment. Use your power as a consumer to demand sustainable deforestation-free palm oil!

LeCompte is an AmeriCorps member with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.  



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