Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Palm Oil Free

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I'm delighted to say we are going palm oil free in this household. I have been casually avoiding palm oil products for a long time having learnt about the impacts on the orangutans, on the environment and on farming communities.

But it was a homeschool research project of my nine-year old daughter that has really made us take our palm oil awareness to the next level. After learning about many impacts, Maia has made it her task to help us free our home from palm oil products (except a few items containing certified sustainable palm oil). She has checked all the cupboards to identify any items containing palm oil and scrutinises all new purchases. 

What's the issue with palm oil?

I was amazed to find out that palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet and it is in over half of all packaged products in the supermarket, yet Australian law does not oblige companies to identify it on ingredient lists. The can list it in generic terms such as ‘vegetable oil’. This means most of us don't even know we are consuming palm oil, let along know of its impact.     

Unless you purchase all fresh unprocessed foods and don't go to supermarkets, palm oil is difficult to avoid.  It is found in packaged breads, baked goods, biscuits, chips, chocolate, ice cream, cereals, instant noodles, beverages, sauces, margarine, yoghurts, toothpaste, shampoos, soap, cosmetics, candles, cleaning agents, washing detergents, pet foods - the list goes on.  It is also increasingly being used as a biofuel.  

I am appalled too at the way it is being produced. Palm oil may be cheap to produce but the costs to the planet, people and other species are high. 

The palm oil industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, water pollution, human rights abuses, animal cruelty, species extinction and landgrabbing. Because of the sheer scale of it’s production and the lack of regulation in the countries where it is produced, the land, forests and communities are devastated for the development of the plantations. 

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Tropical rainforests and peatlands are being cleared at the rate of 300 football fields an hour to make way for palm oil production. This land is often cleared illegally, destroying some of the world’s most diverse habitats and increasing pollution and carbon emissions through slash and burn agriculture. Almost a fifth of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia has taken place on peat swamps. When peat swamps are cleared and drained they release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


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Palm oil is contributing to many species being pushed to extinction. If nothing changes, the orangutan, a keystone species in the rainforest, could become extinct in the wild within 5-10 years. Devastatingly, over 90% of its habitat has been destroyed and 50,000 orangutans have already been killed over the past two decades as a result of deforestation for palm oil plantations. Sumatran tigers may become extinct in less than 3 years. Rhinos and elephants, as well as many many other species, are also severely impacted.

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In many areas, local communities are not respected and employees are treated poorly. Plantations systematically destroy the resources, forests and land that local people depend on, and communities find themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers. They are faced with degrading working conditions and earn barely enough to survive and support their families.
Nigerians protesting an illegal land grab for a corporate palm oil plantation  © www.foei.org

In response to the call for sustainable and fair production of palm oil the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formed a decade ago. This has brought some improvements, however deforestation and the destruction of peatlands continues as oil palm plantations grow and grow. 

Certified palm oil still only makes up 20% of the global palm oil supply (encouragingly up from 10 per cent in 2011). Choice magazine claims that 70% of Australians want clearer palm oil labelling and that many of them are concerned about the environmental, health, animal welfare and social justice impacts. Unfortunately it appears that most of the world market for palm oil does not yet care whether it is sustainably or ethically produced or not.

What can you do:

  • avoid palm oil - grow your own food and cook from scratch
  • buy more wholefoods, avoid processed and packaged products
  • buy other groceries without palm oil (listed as many names including: vegetable oil, vegetable fat and many other names including Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or Sodium Kernelate). A good source of palm oil free foods and groceries can be found at www.orangutans.com.au
  • look for certified sustainable palm oil (www.rspo.org/)
  • write to your state and federal members and let them know that you want labels that identify whether palm oil is in your food.

Adapted from my article published in The Hinterland Times, June 2015

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