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The palm oil predicament

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Author: Lily Curle, Posted: Monday, 17th December 2018, 09:00

© James Morgan/WWF International © James Morgan/WWF International

There is one ingredient in our everyday lives which you probably eat and use so often that you don’t recognise it anymore. It is used in everything, from peanut butter to shampoo, so much so that it is nearly impossible to miss out of your daily routine without some serious study. Furthermore, this ingredient is so prolific that it is needed in huge quantities, leading to deliberate deforestation by nations which grow it as an export product.

What is this ingredient?

This ingredient is palm oil. Of course, you may be thinking, there is no ingredient on the back of my shampoo that says ‘palm oil’, so it must not be in this product. However, the manufacturers of palm oil, and the labellers of products, are sneaky – they use a whole host of names to obscure that a product really has palm oil in.

While many of these names have a hint of ‘palm’ in, many do not. For example, when looking at your shampoo, do you see sodium laureth sulphate or sodium lauryl sulphate? While it may not be obvious, it is these which help your shampoo to lather, but palm oil is a key component of their production.

Even when it is clearly labelled, it is often so widely used that it is difficult to avoid in processed foodstuffs. The majority of peanut butters contain palm oil to make it smooth, stable and glossy: the traditional brands, containing just peanuts, often do not have the same rich texture that makes peanut butter desirable. In fact, the majority of processed food, including bread, crisps and ice cream all contain palm oil.

Why is palm oil a problem?

Because it is so high in demand, palm oil production has boomed very quickly. Unfortunately, as a consequence, the way in which it is produced has become a problem equally as fast.

Because they can make a profit from producing it, many tropical nations are cutting down large swathes of forest in order to plant oil palms. This, in turn, directly threatens the exotic species which live in such habitats, like orang-utans and gorillas, of which most are already struggling.

The palm oil trade also directly affects our human populations. Many people suffer human rights abuse in the plantations where palm oil is manufactured, along with forced seizure of their land in order to grow more crops.

So next time you’re at the shop, pull up a long list of the names of palm oil and see how much of your shopping you can buy without it. If this isn’t an option, try to buy from brands with a commitment to sustainable palm oil.

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© Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace

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