Science & Culture: The Oil Everyone Doesn’t Know They’re Obsessed With

If you have ever been so bored you actually read the label on that box of cookies you bought the other day at the grocery store, you may have seen one of these symbols before:

Left) Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Logo [Source]. Right) RSPO Palm Oil Label [Source].

If you are like most people and do not know what palm oil is (yet), it is the most-produced vegetable oil in the world. In 2018-2019, the US Department of Agriculture estimated the worldwide consumption of palm oil was about 80.83 million metric tons (see Figure 1 below). About 50% of all consumable products include some form of palm oil; These include cosmetics, cleaners, biofuel, and a whole range of food. For example, in a standard breakfast, you might find palm oil in your toast, waffles, chocolate syrup, margarin, granola, and donuts (okay, that’s a pretty big breakfast, but you get the point) [1]. Maybe not surprisingly then, the World Health Organization projects the industry to value $88 billion US dollars in 2022 [2].

Figure 1 [Source].

 At this point, you may be wondering what’s so great about palm oil in the first place. Does it taste good? Nope, it’s quite literally tasteless, as well as odorless and colorless [1]. In fact, these are some of the exact properties that make palm oil so useful to manufacturers. Additionally, palm oil can suspend solids, bind to oil and dirt, maintain semi-solid at room temperature, and partially prevent food from melting, coagulating, and spoiling [1]. In short, palm oil is pretty versatile, which helps us explain how it can be used in so many products. 

Another reason palm oil appears in so many products is the industry itself. The palm oil industry employs millions of people under low wages, including 3.5 million workers just in Indonesia and Malaysia [3]. This keeps production cost low, on top of the fact that oil palms use relatively small amounts of energy, fertilizer and pesticides [4], such that 1 hectare of oil palm produces the equivalent of 4.7 hectares of rapeseed (a bright yellow flowering plant; the most common type is canola oil) or 8.25 hectares of soybean (yep, like the stuff in tofu) [5]. From an environmental perspective, oil palms have many sustainable qualities, but as a whole, the industry has heavy associations with commodity-driven deforestation. Long term land use, such as for crops, accounts for over a quarter of deforestation across the world (see Figure 2), and palm oil plantations are the leading cause of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia [6]. Long story short, fewer trees means less clean air, habitat, food, medicine, wood, shade, and biodiversity. 

Figure 2 [Source].

Now that we have officially established that: 1) the palm oil industry has its problems and 2) oil palms seem to have inherent sustainable qualities, we can go ahead and take a look at certified sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a collection of representatives who get to define what counts as “sustainable” palm oil. There is no King Arthur on this roundtable, because all parties—oil palm producers/processors/traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks, investors, and environmental/social NGOs— have an equal say in every unanimous decision [7]. This might sound good at first, but have you ever heard of a bill passing unanimously across party lines? Yeah, me neither. 

To be fair, maybe the RSPO is not as gridlocked. For example, the RSPO successfully established 7 principles plantations must uphold in order to be deemed sustainable. They have to be ethical, follow laws, minimize waste, positively impact the community, respect smallholders, protect workers rights, and #7, not just conserve, but enhance the ecosystem. Looking more in depth at Principle 7, there are 12 primary goals, including efforts to reduce chemical, sediment, and byproduct pollution, efforts to preserve the land, especially high conservation value forests and high carbon stock forests, and efforts to minimize greenhouse gases [8].

However, there are still two consistent issues with the RSPO. First, the roundtable is very small. Most RSPO members are not oil palm growers, who are directly impacted by the certification guidelines (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3 . RSPO Members by Sector [Source].

Additionally, between its inaugural year (2004) and August 2021, the RSPO has been unable to convince large farms to get certified. Since most CSPO growers own 50 acres of land or less, less than a fifth of global palm oil is certified sustainable by the RSPO [9]. For reference, this creates maps like the one of Malaysia and Indonesia below, where there are significantly more non-certified plantations than certified (orange) plantations.

Second, the unanimous voting draws out the length of each specific issue. For instance, in their impact report, the RSPO acknowledged that they close an average 6.4 a year, part of the reason why “certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates” [10]. Plus, the RSPO has faced criticism for allowing overproduction, monoculture, and bio-accumulative pesticides, failing to regulate new technologies like GMOs, and demonstrating poor enforcement and frequent policy turnover.

Compared to other oils, is palm oil actually so bad? If we are only talking about chemical substitutes, the National Center for Biotechnology Information already examined some options. If you are like me and stare at scientific reports like they are in Latin, in summary, there are feasible replacements for practically every use of palm oil: soap, baking, spreading base, cosmetics, and frying. The main issue is, on a large scale, manufacturers typically have to mix fats to get the same result as palm oil [11]. In baking, a mix of liquid and solid fats would work, but this would require the company to buy and receive shipments from more sources.

Likewise, the substitutes for frying oil are fats like peanut, sunflower and rapeseed [11], and while these plants may use more land, they also have some environmental benefits: Peanut and soybean plants store colonies of bacteria in its roots, and these bacteria convert nitrogen into a usable form, increasing the availability of usable nitrogen in the soil. Also, compared to oil palm trees, plants like soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower are relatively small and temporary, which means farmers can change which crop they plant each year, useful for protecting the nutrients in the soil and preventing pests from getting used to one plant long-term. 

Additionally, a few research groups and companies are looking into synthetic palm oil. A company called C16 Biosciences received a $20 million investment from the Gates Foundation to use genetically modified strains of yeast to convert organic waste into palm oil. Granted, they are in their early stages and only producing 0.1 tons of synthetic palm oil a week [12], but the company is attracting a lot of attention from researchers and investors, and they are also not the only ones looking to make synthetic palm oil [13]. Carbocycle, another company supported by the Gates Foundation and researchers, is looking to use fungi in non-oxygenated environments to produce synthetic palm oil [12]

Right now, you might be thinking, “Did I really just read this entire article only to learn I have to put a raincheck on an actual solution?” Nope! In the short term, as consumers, we can try to decrease the amount of certified sustainable palm oil that does not find a buyer by reading labels, or using grocery scanning apps to check for products that do not use any palm oil. If you want to go the extra mile, you can also keep an eye out for legislation that could improve labels and potentially even introduce a tariff on items with unsustainable palm oil. 

In the long term, the RSPO could also increase oversight, such as by increasing the number of plantation visits and paying growers to not produce at full capacity. At the same time, governments could fund training programs for oil palm framers to enter new jobs while subsidizing domestic startups to set up a future in which people still have access to cheap, sustainable palm oil. Lastly, since palm oil is also a source of biofuel, the US could also try to reduce the total energy the nation uses by passing energy efficiency requirements on new buildings and providing grants for renewable energy.

Whether you already knew about palm oil or had never heard of it before, an industry that influences half of the products we consume is worth paying attention to. Every year, oil palm plantations produce millions of tons of vegetable oil, often at the cost of the local community and environment, and as the leading certification organization, the RSPO has received criticism for failing to address these issues. This means the public has one of the most important roles in regulating the industry. By learning where our purchases come from (congrats, you already read a whole crash course on the palm oil industry!), we can better leverage our purchasing power and voting rights to encourage corporations to offer more conscious products. 

Madison Wong is a Middle College High School student in Sacramento, CA, Girls in STEM member, and a lead education volunteer for the Oakland Zoo, managed by the Conservation Society of California. She enjoys working with and learning about animals, and plans to pursue environmental policy.

References

[1] “Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil?” World Wildlife Fund, 20 Nov. 2018, www. worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil?hc_location=ufi.

[2] Kadandale, Sowmya, et al. “The Palm Oil Industry and Noncommunicable Diseases.” World Health Organization, 8 Jan. 2018, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/2/18-220434/en.

[3] “Exploitative Labor Practices in the Global Palm Oil Industry.” Humanity United, 2013, humanityunited.org/pdfs/Modern_Slavery_in_the_Palm_Oil_Industry.pdf.

[4] Browne, Grace. “What Is Palm Oil?” LiveScience, Future US Inc, 2 Apr. 2020, www. livescience.com/palm-oil.html.

[5] “8 Things to Know About Palm Oil.” World Wildlife Fund, 17 Jan. 2020, http://www.wwf.org.uk/ updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil.

[6] Fritts, Rachel. “What’s Causing Deforestation? New Study Reveals Global Drivers.” Mongabay, 14 Sept. 2018, news.mongabay.com/2018/09/whats-causing- deforestation-new-study-reveals-global-drivers.

[7] “Our Organisation.” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, http://www.rspo.org/about/our- organisation.

[8] “RSPO Principles and Criteria 2018 Auditor’s Checklist.” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 1 Nov. 2019, http://www.rspo.org/library/lib_files/preview/1013.

[9] “Impact Reports.” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 2018, http://www.rspo.org/key-documents/ impact-reports.

[10] “Reflecting on a Decade of Growth: Impact Report 2019.” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Sept 2020, http://www.rspo.org/impact.

[11] Hinrichsen, Nils. “Commercially Available Alternatives to Palm Oil.” PubMed Central, National Center for Biotechnology Information and US National Library of Medicine, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4834613.

[12] Rathi, Akshat. “Bill Gates-Led Fund Invests in Synthetic Palm Oil Startup.” Bloomberg Green, 2 Mar. 2020, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-02/bill-gates-led-fund- invests-in-synthetic-palm-oil-startup.

[13] “Developing an Alternative to Palm Oil from Waste Resources, Using Yeast.” University of Bath, 2016, http://www.bath.ac.uk/projects/developing-an-alternative-to-palm-oil-from-waste- resources-using-yeast.

[Edited by: Sabrina Mederos]

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