Major Palm Oil Problem: Ethical Take

We rarely ponder upon the components of the products that we consume in our day to day life, and the least that would ever blanket our consciousness is the severity it prompts on our environment. One such component is Palm oil; a versatile oil that is a raw material of half the products we see on the shelf of the supermarket.

Palm Oil is an edible vegetable oil procured from the fruits of oil palm trees, also known as African oil palms. The oil palm trees originally came from West and South-West Africa and were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia constitute over 85 per cent of the global supply market, followed by 42 other countries.

India is the second-largest consumer of palm oil; its import rose at an average of 12 per cent every year in the decades to 2015–2016. About 96 per cent of India’s palm oil consumption demand is fulfilled by imports from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. The graph of global production has quadrupled to meet the growing demand between the year 1995–2015, which is forecasted to grow between 120–156 million tonnes by 2050.

The popularity of palm oil and its omnipresence in almost half of the products in the market from chocolate, doughnut, pizza, to lipstick, shampoo, deodorants can be attributed to its distinct properties and functions. Some are high-temperature stability, resistance to oxidation, longer shelf life, and many others.

The growing consumer consciousness on ethical sourcing of raw material has caused scepticism around palm oil. Many ponder over the long-term ecological effect of using easily procured cheap materials.

Effect Palam Oil extraction on planet

Environmentalists assert that the extraction of oil palm trees is highly pernicious for our planet and it continues to be a significant contributor to deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. This further destroys the habitat of the endangered species; tigers, Sumatran rhinos, orangutans, pygmy elephants are profoundly affected.

Ipso facto, the production is stated to have been responsible for about 8 per cent of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008.

According to the World Rainforest Movement, the plantation area has been increased from 0.5 million hectares in 1985 to 20 million hectares at present and is projected to reach 25 million hectares by 2025. The forests are burned at a massive scale to grow oil palms. Since the market for palm oil is huge, deforestation happens even if it is illegal. The loss of forest with the conversion of carbon-rich peat soils is generating millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and hence adding to climate change.

Every year, the smoke generated from burning forests for plantations covers parts of Southeast Asia. In 2019, around 50 million people were directly affected by the smoke generated from burning the forests to prepare the land for plantation of palm oil trees.

According to a report on the industry in India, Palm Lines states that the cost of the certified sustainable palm oil is around 30 US dollars per tonne of crude oil. The industry executives often put forth the argument that due to the highly competitive market to offer cheap products is so compelling that no margin of profit would be left if they were to add the costs of ethical palm oil. A ray of hope in this haze is some of the big refiners which are switching to the other alternatives available in the market.

Introduction of RSPO

In its journey to produce palm oil sustainably, Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004. The aim was to address the rising concerns of the harmful impacts of palm oil on the environment. The RSPO curtails production standards that ensure best practices for producing and sourcing palm oil. It promotes companies to maintain transparency in their use and sourcing of palm oil to keep the record of who they buy from and where it is produced and encourage smallholder programs and sustainable initiatives.

The growing market of palm oil poses a severe threat to the environment; however, the market still relies on the cheap and affordable palm oil suppresses the ethical dilemma. As there exists a cost to this ethical quandary and hence it goes unaddressed. To maintain harmony with the environment vis-à-vis the managing economy, we need to accelerate to this sustainable model for the palm oil industry immediately.

Falguni Chaudhary

A literature graduate,Falguni is a PR specialist and communication strategist who thrives on brand building and creating the right PR mix for brands via the art of storytelling.Apart from the daily grind, she loves taking photo-walks, read literary theories and bake.

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