The palm oil controversy

It is one of the most controversial substances nowadays. It has been filling the pages of the major media around the world for some time now. While it is true that it has many uses and is very profitable, marketing often hides its darkest secrets. It is when they have been revealed that society has shown an intense rejection of all those products that have palm oil among their ingredients. In this post we will explain all the keys of this controversial oil so that, in the end, the reader decides to continue trusting it or, on the contrary, to join the growing wave of criticism

The protagonist of this post is a vegetable oil known for a long time that is obtained from the oil palm Elaeis guineensis, a close relative of the typical palms as it belongs to the same order (Arecales). Naturally, the distribution of this plant is mainly concentrated on the edges of forests, along riverbanks and in swampy areas of tropical regions located at altitudes of about 500 meters, although some populations can be found up to 1700 meters.

Its anatomy is unmistakable: it is a single-trunk tree that in their natural state can reach heights of over 40 metres, with abundant unisexual flower bunches growing in leaves’ axils, very similar to those of an ordinary palm tree. Male flowers are like cylindrical spikes and the female flowers are globular. The fruits, which constitute the commercial success of this species, are of a striking intense reddish colour, especially in the case of the most abundant variety of oil palm cultivated, and each fresh fruit bunch can contain between 1000 and 3000 fruits, weighing up to 25 kg.

The palm oil Elaeis guineensis is the source of several star products in our current market. Sciencemag

Although we currently find lush plantations distributed throughout the tropical regions of the world, E. guineensis would be native to West Africa, in the region of the Gulf of Guinea, where it has been “domesticated” and exploited for about 5000 years, so we must assume that for local populations has been considered an important raw material of subsistence. However, some authors deny this hypothesis and argue a South American origin. Among other things, the argument they usually present is that in this region there is a greater diversity of species of the genus Elaeis sp. (in Brazil and other South American countries, for example, the most abundant species is Elaeis oleifera), so it could be thought that the oil palm would be one of those variants that would later have been taken to the Old World and Africa after the contact inaugurated by Columbus. Be that as it may, this theory is defended by few authors and most advocate the African origin hypothesis. Some evidence that reinforces this point are the discovery of fossilized seeds and pollen remains of oil palm much older in Africa than in South America (even possible remains of palm oil in an Egyptian tomb 5000 years ago, indicating that its extraction and use is very old) and the records from the middle of the 15th century (and, consequently, before the discovery of America by Columbus) which European explorers have left us about the presence of this plant in West Africa . With all that has been said, it seems then that the dispersion of the oil palm began from the Gulf of Guinea.

It began to arrive in Europe with the incursions of the first European settlers and explorers in Africa, although its use was still anecdotal. In the 16th century, the boom in the transport of African slaves to the newly discovered tropical territories in America was accompanied by the transfer of oil palms to the New Continent, mainly so that they would have something familiar to eat. It was not until the 19th century that the palm and its derived goods attracted attention for human consumption on a more widespread level. The main consumers of palm oil were the British, but they used it mainly to grease the gears and machinery of their industries and to make soap. It should be borne in mind that the techniques for extracting palm oil suitable for human consumption were very unsophisticated and did not make it possible to obtain an oil that was attractive to the palate. This period also saw the strengthening of trade relations between Africa and Europe, which helps to explain the increase in the oil palm trade as a commodity.

A worker harvests the giant fruit bunches from an oil palm. Bumn

In Malaysia, one of the main palm oil producing countries in the world today together with Indonesia, was introduced by the British around 1870 as an ornamental plant, and it was not until 1917 that the first palm plantation was established, which from then onwards would be mainly managed by British landowners until the region became independent in the 1960s. The fact that palm oil production was concentrated in Southeast Asia is explained not only by the environmental conditions that allow for a massive and successful cultivation of E. guineensis, but also by the intense genetic selection work that has been carried out to obtain the most productive strains and the development of cultivation, extraction and production techniques. On the other hand, although the history of the oil palm is longer in Africa, internal wars and conflicts have hindered the development of this industry and practically any other. In fact, until recently the process of palm oil extraction had been mostly manual.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is, as we have already said, the star product extracted from the oil palm. However, to understand what it is we will have to make a brief exploration of its chemical composition.

Palm oil is actually a substance very similar to a fat. Both are part of the wide and diverse group of lipids, biomolecules that are essential for life to exist. The main differences between an oil and a fat lie in the origin, since oils are extracted mainly from plants and fats from animal, and in the state they present at room temperature, being solid-semisolid in the case of fats and liquid in the case of oils, which is determined by the proportion of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. A greater proportion of saturated fatty acids provides a more solid state, as is the case with fats, while a greater quantity of unsaturated fatty acids determines a more liquid state, as is the case with vegetable oils.

We are all familiar in some way with fatty acids, especially in relation to our health. They are actually very simple molecules, formed by hydrocarbon chains, that is, chains formed by several carbon atoms (whose number varies between 14 and 22) that are attached to hydrogen atoms. To complete their definition we must add that they also have a carboxyl group added to one of their ends (a chemical group formed by one carbon atom, two oxygen atoms and one hydrogen atom and which is usually represented as such: -COOH).

Likewise, we have already seen that there are two large groups of fatty acids, which are basically distinguished by the structural characteristics of their chain, only in whether or not they have one or more double or triple bonds:

  • Saturated fatty acids: do not have double or triple bonds, so that all carbon atoms are linked by single bonds. We have already indicated that they are more abundant in fats than in oils and that they are the ones that give them their solid state at room temperature. Two of the most abundant and well known saturated fatty acids are palmitic acid, which is precisely the majority in palm oil, and stearic acid.

  • Unsaturated fatty acids: the chain at least has a double or triple bond. Depending on the number of these bonds, they would be monounsaturated if they only have one, such as oleic and linoleic acids, or polyunsaturated when they have more than one, such as Omega-3 or Omega-6.

Chemical structure of one saturated and one unsaturated fatty acid. As can be seen, the carbon chain of saturated fatty acids does not have any double or triple bonds between carbon atoms, which is the case, however, with unsaturated fatty acids. Pamela M. Brenner

Well, the lipid profile of palm oil consists of an equivalent proportion of saturated (palmitic acid being the most abundant) and unsaturated fatty acids. This is important, because it explains much of its success.

The food industry has tried to replace animal fats with vegetable oils in food as far as possible, mainly because of the high cholesterol content of the former. It is true that oils do not have, but we must be cautious, as consumed in excess they can increase the “bad” cholesterol, although some more than others, which depends on the amount of saturated fatty acids they contain.

We have already mentioned that vegetable oils are rich in unsaturated fatty acids. The ones that have the most are rapeseed oil or sunflower oil, for example. But there is a problem: although unsaturated fatty acids are preferable for their beneficial effects on our health, on the other hand they are less resistant to the passage of time and consequently reduce the shelf life of the product. Logically, it is important to have foods that are as durable as possible. Thus, the industry has opted for a system to increase the presence of saturated fatty acids in this type of oil by means of chemical procedures such as partial hydrogenation, which serves to dissolve the double or triple bonds of the hydrocarbonate chains and transform the unsaturated fatty acids into saturated ones, thus increasing their shelf life. These processes also solidify the oils at room temperature and produce a semi-solid ingredient, very similar to animal fats, which can be used in the production of butter and margarine, for example.

Composition of saturated fatty acids (black colour) and unsaturated fatty acids (white and grey colour) from different vegetable oils. Palm oil has a more or less equivalent percentage of both types of fatty acids. Herrero 2018

Here’s another problem. In addition to the fact that with these procedures the ingredients are richer in saturated fatty acids, whose harmful effects on health we will discuss later, there are also side elements and unwanted elements such as the much hated trans fats. This type of fat was the the best until recently, because they are very stable and take a long time to become rancid (the problem with fats is that they quickly become rancid due to oxidation, which degrades the hydrocarbon chains), thus increasing the life of products that carry them. However, since the 90s, worrying associations between these fats and an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and breast and prostate cancer have been discovered, so that their appearance in food has been restricted.

A genuine multipurpose knife

Well, due to its physical-chemical properties, its versatility and its low cost, palm oil and other oil palm derivatives have an extraordinary variety of uses. Since ancient times, palm oil has been used for cooking and for medicinal purposes. Later, in Europe, it began to be used as grease for machines, until the development and standardisation of extraction and refining processes allowed us to produce a good quality palm oil that could be used as a food additive. Thus, we find refined palm oil as an ingredient in a not inconsiderable variety of foods, mainly in ultraprocessed foods such as fries, cereals, buns, sweets, etc. On the other hand, the almond or seed is useful for the manufacture of animal feed and for obtaining palm kernel oil or PKO (by pressing the seed). This whitish oil is mainly added to cosmetic products, soaps, detergents, varnishes, etc. Its application in gastronomy is less due to its higher content in saturated fats compared to palm oil, although it has also been used for cooking and can be found in some foods. However, clearly the most widely consumed substance is palm oil.

In this cut of an oil palm fruit  we can observe the reddish mesocarp and the whitish seed in the center. The brown layer is the shell of the seed. Pinterest

The extraction of palm oil follows a not too complex process. It is obtained from the pulp or mesocarp of the fruit, the thick, fleshy layer that surrounds and protects the seed. First the fruits are sterilized and then they are pressed to separate the oil, of a striking reddish-orange color, from the pulp and the fiber.

Crude palm oil is reddish in colour. When refined it acquires a yellowish colour, similar to that of many consumable oils. a24

The crude product has to be refined to make it suitable as a food ingredient and to prevent it from altering the organoleptic properties of the food in question (colour, texture, taste, odour), which is why until sophisticated refining procedures were developed, society made little use of it for consumption. The refining process in question is known as refining, bleaching and deodorizing or RDB, a process to which many other oils are also subjected, and which consists of a set of concatenated physical and/or chemical processes with the aim of eliminating all the residues that may alter the food to which the palm oil is to be added. On the other hand, there is another type of refinement that is used to optimize palm oil as biodiesel.

The RDB method is carried out in the refining and fractionation plants and consists of general features:

  1. Degumming: consists of the separation of gums, proteins and phospholipids by the addition of hot water, since these compounds are insoluble in water. In this way, a more edible oil is obtained.

  2. Neutralising: caustic soda is usually added to the degummed oil to neutralize the free fatty acids. In this step soaps are formed.

  3. Bleaching: if edible oil is to be manufactured, it is important to eliminate the soaps that have been formed in the previous step. To do this, bleaching earth is added, a clay that is heated with the oil and that also serves for the oil to absorb its pigments and lose its reddish colour. The palm oil then becomes yellow.

  4. Deodorisation: this would be the last step of the refining process. By subjecting the oil to high-pressure vapours, the volatile particles are removed.

With this process two final products are obtained: olein, which is the liquid fraction and which is usually mixed with other oils for consumption, and palm stearin, the solid fraction useful for making soaps and margarines. It is worth knowing that both nomenclatures can appear on food labels replacing “palm oil”. In this way, ideal ingredients are obtained which, due to their properties, do not alter the quality of the food and, furthermore, as they have a good load of saturated fatty acids, they give the products a longer shelf life.

Simplified diagram of how the palm oil supply chain would look. RSPO
Appearance of palm oil after refining. Fade Saludable

However, all that glitters is  not gold. The refining of palm oil involves a number of obstacles that have not yet been fully overcome. On the one hand, many beneficial components contained in crude palm oil are lost during refining. Carotenoids (the molecules that give the oil its red colour), various antioxidants and vitamins did not survive until they reached the final product, so the industry ended up taking measures to avoid these losses and obtain a substance with the highest possible concentration of these elements. However, the worst thing is that toxic residues for health are created along the way due to the high temperatures to which the oil is subjected during refining and which we will talk about later, since they have played a fundamental role in the rejection that the population professes towards it.

The distribution of the oil palm

We have already pointed out that since the 16th century, oil palm has been dispersed by man from West Africa to tropical regions around the world, although the most suitable regions for planting are those between 10º N and 10º S with respect to the equator. It can therefore be expected that countries in this range will be the most important producers.

This map shows the countries that grow palm oil by 2013. The more intense the colour, the greater the area harvested for oil palm. Vijay et al 2016

The consumption of palm oil has grown steadily and constantly over time to become the most consumed oil in the world for several consecutive years. Not even the recent popular rejection has made much damage in its production and consumption. While in the fiscal year 2015-2016 it is estimated that almost 59 million metric tons of palm oil were produced worldwide, by the end of 2019 some 75 million metric tons were produced, a trend that will continue to rise. In all those years it was by far the most produced and consumed oil. In fact, it is estimated to be found in 50% of the most common domestic consumables. These data are certainly disturbing, since there is not much left for palm oil demand to exceed production.

Where oil palm cultivation has been most successful is clearly in Southeast Asia, the only region in the world that has experienced significant growth in production. Hensen 2012

Malaysia and Indonesia have by far the largest share of global palm oil production, accounting for 85-90 per cent, followed by Thailand and Colombia. For example, it is estimated that in 2015 Malaysia and Indonesia produced 33.4 and 19.9 million tonnes of palm oil respectively. Other notable producing nations would be Mexico, Nigeria, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, the Philippines, the African countries of the Gulf of Guinea… Focusing on Malaysia and Indonesia, from 2001 to 2016, palm plantations have increased from 2.59 to 6.39 million hectares and from 3 to 12.66 million hectares respectively. Most of their production is for export.

India, the European Union and China account for 46% of global imports nowadays. Interestingly, the main consumer of palm oil is Indonesia, followed by these three countries. The field that requires more palm oil, and therefore the most used, is the gastronomic field, followed by biofuels. Approximately 68% of palm oil is currently used by the food industry and 30% for biodiesel. Both uses have increased over time. In fact, the European Union allocates 60% of palm oil imports for the production of biodiesel and the rest as a gastronomic ingredient and for other uses.

If palm oil is so famous it is basically for two reasons: its physical-chemical characteristics and its profitability. More oil is extracted from one hectare of an oil palm plantation than from a soya palm plantation (soya oil is the second most produced globally). In addition, palm oil is possibly the cheapest on the market. In fact, thanks to this ingredient we have access to a multitude of foods at lower prices than if they had other types of oil.

Health impacts of palm oil

Now, why has so much hatred been generated towards a substance that not only makes the food we eat cheaper but is also multipurpose? This phobia has two origins that have converged: on the one hand, the negative impacts that palm plantations have on the environment and biodiversity, and on the other hand, the impacts that their excessive consumption has on our health. It was mainly the latter that set off all the alarms. As usual, until the problem is defined and affects us directly, we do not take it for granted.

In 2017 there was a peak of interest in palm oil. It became the consumer’s number one enemy, superseding even sugar. That year, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) alerted consumers to the health risks of refined palm oil, but more specifically of the toxic substances that are generated collaterally during the refining process: glycidol and its esters and 3-MCPD (3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol). These residues are usually generated in fat-rich substances when subjected to temperatures beyond 200ºC, and which are precisely reached in the refining processes of many oils. However, social fear came when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified 3-MCPD in the group 2B of carcinogens, and glycidol and its esters in group 2A. Cancer is an eminently taboo disease, and when something is related to it, the destruction of its prestige is assured. However, it is necessary to qualify.

Cancer, that unmentionable taboo for many people, is the perfect weapon to destroy the prestige of anything. Merca2

IARC has developed a classification of 5 categories. The first category consists of those substances that have been proven to cause cancer in humans. The carcinogenic potential decreases as we approach category 4, which includes those substances that we know for sure do not cause cancer. Category 2 is the most labyrinthine. It is divided into two subcategories: 2A and 2B. The only difference lies in the suspected carcinogenic potential of that substance: if there are many suspicions, it will be placed in 2A, and if there are few, in 2B. Be that as it may, category 2 does not allow us to be certain that something can cause us cancer, since most experiments have been carried out on animals or on cells in vitro, and the disadvantage of these tests is that their results cannot be extrapolated to the human organism because of the great differences that separate us from, for example, a rodent or isolated cells. The problem is that the media do not like to waste time on nuances. It is much more appealing to potential readers to categorically claim that palm oil causes cancer than to dwell on details of oddly named toxicants for which there are few studies on their carcinogenic potential in humans. Moreover, the risk derives as always from the excessive consumption of these substances. If we limit ourselves to not exceeding the Tolerable Daily Intake limits established by the competent organisms, which can be achieved by reducing the consumption of foods that are not recommended for our health (which are more unhealthy because of their nutritional profile with respect to the amount of sugars or saturated fats than because the toxic residues content), the risk of suffering from these pathologies is small, although it is also true that since glycidol is genotoxic, a Tolerable Daily Intake has not been established. In any case, in the case of MCPDs, it seems that adults does not usually exceed the daily amounts recommended.

In addition to cancer, laboratory animals exposed to 3-MCPD suffered from kidney toxicity, a weakened immune system and infertility. With respect to glycidol and its esters, both in vitro and in vivo studies have shown their genotoxic capacity, that is, the potential ability to damage cellular genetic material, one of the causes of carcinogenesis.

The presence of these contaminants in food with palm oil is of course of concern. But their nutritional profile, and in particular their high content of saturated fatty acids, should be much more so. The most abundant is palmitic acid. Studies analysing the influence of saturated fatty acids on health are not at all encouraging. In general, a diet rich in this type of fatty acid is often associated with a higher risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory problems, increased oxidative stress in tissues and cardiovascular disease associated with an increase in LDL cholesterol, better known as “bad cholesterol”. High-fat diets are also associated with an increased risk of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer. On top of that, many foods rich in saturated fatty acids also contain significant amounts of sugar and too many calories.

Palmitic acid is the main saturated fatty acid in palm oil, and it is associated with a range of pathologies in humans. Gram Positivo-Twitter

Without a doubt, these properties of palm oil should be what we should be most aware of when making our shopping list, as it is more likely to exceed the recommended levels of these nutrients in our daily diet than the toxins we have discussed above. By this we do not mean that we should leave palm oil aside, but rather that we should consume it with common sense and moderation and opt for healthier foods.

As we were saying, because of all these issues, palm oil went viral in the media and in social networks, but so did misinformation. Soon after, advertising bombarded us with the same old foods from which the much hated ingredient had been removed. And the truth is that the food industry made a killing. We would be deluded to think that popular pressure managed to boycott companies like Nestlé or Unilever. In truth, the losses they suffered were minimal and they cleverly exploited the pull of the growing popular rejection. Removing palm oil from an ultraprocessed food does not make it any better, as they continue to have high levels of saturated fatty acids, sugars and cholesterol. However, that was the message implicit in the advertising, and we, the consumers, believed it and continued to buy those kind of products, but now with the idea and assurance that our health would no longer be sabotaged by the damn palm oil.

Many brands have decided to eliminate palm oil from their products in response to social pressure. They have wisely taken advantage of this to stress how healthy their food is now without this oil, even though it still contains high amounts of sugars and undesirable fatty acids. El Corte Inglés

In any case, if you are concerned about foods containing palm oil, you should carefully study the labelling. Until 2014, producers were free to hide the presence of palm oil behind the vague title of “vegetable oil”. Since then, thanks to Regulation 1169/2011 of the European Parliament, it is compulsory to specify what type of vegetable oil is present and whether it has been partially or totally hydrogenated. Even so, this regulation allows certain tricks that have been cleverly exploited by producers. Knowing the negative connotations that palm oil has acquired, they have chosen to camouflage their name with the nomenclatures “palm kernel oil”, “palm stearin”, “palmolein”, “palm butter”, “fractionated and hydrogenated palm kernel fat” or “Elaeis guineensis oil” among others. So if you come across any of these labels, don’t hesitate, you are looking at a food with palm oil.

From 2014, it is mandatory to specify what type of vegetable oil a product has, but beware of synonyms. SBS

Impacts of palm oil on the environment and biodiversity

Agriculture stands as the third most powerful economic pillar in Indonesia. This country is still heavily dependent on it. For this reason, Indonesian government has derived much of its land for the production of palm oil, since its profitability and growing global demand make this industry one of the most prosperous. In fact, the livelihoods of millions of people in Indonesia depend on palm cultivation in one way or another, and employability in this sector is expected to grow in the coming years, which is undoubtedly good news for the country. It is therefore logical that Indonesia and also Malaysia were so interested in this industry: they saw it as a way of alleviating unemployment in their respective territories. However, it is estimated that 40% of the plantations in Indonesia and 10% of those in Malaysia are managed by smallholders, while the majority belong to large private companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, Cargill and their suppliers.

However, it is obvious that the surface area of a country is a limited resource and is also often occupied by tropical forests and peatlands in the cases of Indonesia or Malaysia, so that human ambitions often clash with those of the inhabitants who, long before us, live in these environments. The increased demand for palm oil brings with it an obvious response: the size of plantations must be expanded, and in light of this, forests become enemies to be beaten by plantation holders. Thus, it is normal that more and more hectares of rainforest are being allocated to oil palm plantations in Southeast Asian countries.

Rainforests of Southeast Asia are suffering, and this is due largely to the expansion of oil palm plantations. This snapshot is taken on the island of New Guinea, where a huge patch of deforested and drained peatland is shown for the sowing of more palm. Ulet Ifansasti

This is a big problem for the natural heritage of the planet. Not only do tropical forests play an essential role in climate change, but on the other hand, they are home to a very rich and extensive biodiversity, with numerous endemic species in their catalogue, i.e. species that live exclusively in these ecosystems and are therefore highly dependent on them. Therefore, if these forests disappear, we can say goodbye forever to many of these species. From an anthropocentric point of view, the rainforest is also a key source of numerous resources and there are still many populations strongly attached to them, so their survival is subordinated to the permanence of the tropical forests.

Well, Malaysia and Indonesia, the two main palm oil producing countries, were home to 11% of the world’s tropical forests. And we speak in the past tense because this figure has been drastically reduced. Satellite images of these countries are frightening. Their territories are becoming more and more patchy and clear. Where there used to be a dense, shapeless mass of vegetation, now there are geometrical shapes of deforested land. The data is disturbing. It is estimated that 50 per cent of Malaysian territory is currently occupied by palm plantations and 70 per cent of Indonesian land was once rainforest. Both countries are at the top of the list of nations with the highest deforestation rates. Logically, the palm oil industry is not the only culprit in these environmental disasters, but we cannot deny that its role in this respect is crucial. To make matters worse, in 2008 Indonesia held the Guinness record for being the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

Both figures denote the same thing: the tragedy that the Indonesian forests have been experiencing for decades. Indonesia, in fact, is one of the countries with the highest deforestation rate in the world. The World Bank & Kuang Keng Kuek

Conversion from forest to crops is a traumatic process. The most heavily constituted trees and shrubs are cut down and the rest are burned, including the secondary forest (i.e. the forest that is regrowing and recovering after a drastic alteration of the primary precursor forest), with the associated emission of greenhouse gases. There is an additional problem, which is that most forests are settled on peatlands, i.e. wetlands and large reservoirs of peat, a type of carbon. These wetlands must be drained. Some estimates state that draining one hectare of these peatlands emits 4000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, in addition to methane, two of the main contributors to climate change. Perhaps that is why Indonesia is among the top 5 countries in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

To this carbon footprint must be added the gases emitted by the industrial machinery of the refining and processing plants, which still use fossil fuels, or the transport involved. Deforestation is the main drawback of palm crops, but let’s not stop there. Dehydration of peatlands generates drier environments and, consequently, lands are more prone to fires. Pesticides and fertilizers used on crops can leach out and contaminate nearby rivers and lagoons or underground aquifers. The soil erodes more rapidly due to its constant exploitation, losing fertility and quality, an impact that in the end results in the loss of more biodiversity. Finally, comparing the benefits we obtain from oil palm with the damage it causes to the environment first and then to our health, it seems that it is not too profitable to continue expanding this type of industry, or at least until less harmful methods are found.

Evolution of deforestation on Borneo from 1950 to 2005, from which the status of Borneo’s forests is estimated for 2010 and 2020. Research gate

One might think that the solution to all these drawbacks should be provided by the country that is causing them, perhaps through stronger legislation that will stop entrepreneurs and protect and preserve its natural heritage. However, when we look at this issue we can only be more disappointed. Many environmental organizations denounce that many oil palm plantations in Indonesia are illegal (and surely something similar happens in the rest of the producing countries) because they violate several laws, including a couple approved in 1999 according to which it is forbidden to exploit and drain peat soils deeper than 2 meters to convert them into crops and burn forests. We see, therefore, that the benefits obtained from oil palms cloud the judgment and ethics of those responsible. The fact is that we will regret it if a limit is not placed on our unconsciousness. Did you know that the United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that by 2022, and at the current rate of expansion of palm crops, Indonesia will have lost 98% of its tropical forests? Does that seem very exaggerated? Well, we only have two years left to prove it…

We were saying that biodiversity is another of the elements most affected by the uncontrolled cultivation of palm trees. For example, researchers Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove made a compilation in 2008 of some studies that witnessed a drastic decrease in the diversity of birds and butterflies (77 and 83% respectively) due to the substitution of primary forest by oil palm crops in Malaysia and Borneo. All species are affected, from the tiniest fungus to the largest mammal, although the case that most often afflicts us and is most often used to raise awareness is that of orangutans, which is also extremely tragic.

Already in 2004, when these data were published, the number of terrestrial vertebrates under threat in Indonesia and Malaysia was alarming. IUCN Red List

Orangutans are fascinating primates. They share family with us and with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos (family Hominidae), and they are very smart. Three species have been identified so far: Pongo abelii (endemic to North Sumatra, Indonesia), Pongo pygmaeus (endemic to Borneo) and, the most recently discovered, Pongo tapanuliensis (also endemic to North Sumatra). And as you might expect, all three are critically endangered. The cause: the loss of their habitat and resources. One of the main responsible: oil palm crops.

They spend most of their lives in the trees, and most of their time in looking for food. They are eminently frugivorous, but opt for leaves, tender shoots and even insects when the low fruit season arrives. Because of the type of habitat where they live and their type of diet, they are considered important seed dispersers, so they play an important ecological role for the forest.

Images of helpless orangutans injured by human activities are among the most painful associated with the palm industry. Rainforest Rescue

Males are usually solitary and females form groups with immature offspring. The mother-child relationship is essential for this species, to the extent that it determines its survival. Mothers play a fundamental role for their young, because they teach them, among other things, how to search for food. So now we can try to find out why deforestation puts these animals in critical danger. Many are burned to death in arson fires. Others starve because they can’t find food. Many youngsters die helplessly, having been orphaned without a mother to teach them how to survive. Others are directly killed: as they lose their main sources of food, they are forced to raid palm plantations in search of alternatives. Workers treat them like a plague and whenever they can, they hunt them down and violently expel them by beating or shooting them, leaving them to their fate. The height of the orangutan tragedy reaches its climax with the denunciations that declare the active participation of big corporations in their extermination. Specifically, it seems that on some occasions they have financed hunting parties to prevent these animals from entering their crops. It is therefore not surprising that the most ominous prophecies estimate the total extinction of the Borneo orangutan in just two decades.

This photograph went around the world. An orangutan faces a bulldozer to try and stop the destruction of its home. Nature versus man. ABC

Be that as it may, biodiversity is at risk. A 2019 study (see image below) determined that Southeast Asia is the region of the planet where species suffer the greatest amount of anthropogenic impacts, with Malaysia being the country in this region with the highest rate. Science has therefore given its verdict, and although it is true that there is a certain degree of dissent in some results, consensus is quite assured regarding the negative impacts of oil palm cultivation methods. Even so, we will be able to see in certain places, such as the website of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), stoic defences on palm oil and oil palm plantations claiming the capacity of these crops to alleviate climate change (better, they say, than a tropical forest) or the large amounts of oxygen they produce. Their objectives are to improve the public image of palm oil…

Does the production of biodiesel compensate the negative impacts of palm oil?

Due to its characteristics, palm oil is presented as a plausible raw material for the production of biofuels. The same crude oil that is used as an ingredient in food can be used to move a vehicle, although the refining process to obtain it is different.

Over time, in some importing regions of the world, the use of palm oil as a biofuel has grown significantly. In the European Union (as we have already pointed out, one of the main importers of palm oil), 60 per cent of imported oil is used for the production of biodiesel. Even its use in the food, chemical and cosmetic industry does not exceed that of biofuels.

Neuromarketing is an essential element in our consumer society, and has much more power than we can even imagine. Product names are not chosen at random. Only those that manage to pass a series of rigorous filters, as if there is a kind of natural selection, are those that will become part of our usual vocabulary and ethical schemes, that is, they will become part of the category of words with positive or negative connotations. Neuromarketing experts are very aware of the prevailing fashions and concerns of the society they have to captivate. And in our society, fossil fuels, climate change and the damage we cause to the environment are very present.

The prefix “bio-” is very similar to “eco-“, and it has been accepted as if it were indissolubly true that anything that carries those prefixes in its label is good for everything: our health, the environment, workers’ rights, etc. In reality, however, it is the marketing experts who have introduced these meanings. However, Not everything that is “eco” or “bio” is beneficial (it is ironic that the prefix “bio-” is not added to coal or oil, which also have a biological origin).

Simplified biodiesel “life” cycle. IP

Biodiesel is the most widely produced biofuel from palm oil. It can also be obtained from many other plant species and, in fact, each country uses the one that suits it best (oil palm constitutes 1% of the vegetable raw material used to produce biodiesel). Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand use mainly oil palm, for example. There are many other biofuels, such as bioethanol, but let us focus on the first. These alternatives to fossil fuels are presented as precisely that, as the panacea that in the near future will completely replace polluting fuels. Really, if it could be achieved, it would be a great achievement for humanity. Biodiesel, for example, is more environmentally friendly than any fossil fuel: it burns much less CO2, biodegrades much better and faster, and emits far fewer polluting chemicals, such as sulphates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It is also true, however, that they produce dangerous concentrations of nitrogen oxides. Still, it’s not bad.

Our ambitions have one major drawback: they cannot be achieved at present, at least if we hope that the amount of biodiesel extracted from the most frequently used vegetable raw material can replace fossil fuels on a global scale. The problem with biodiesel is that its energy content is lower than, for example, that of diesel, specifically 12% lower, so it is necessary to produce more to fuel all machinery and vehicles that run on diesel, which leads to a greater expansion of crops with all the impacts that would entail. For example, researcher Yusuf Chisti estimates that to supply all the fossil fuel consumption in the United States, 111 million hectares would need to be occupied with oil palm and 61% of the cultivated land, a totally unsustainable plan.

The consumption of palm oil is growing more and more every year, as if the bad image that has been generated around it had not even affected it. The food industry uses it the most, but its use as biodiesel is also steadily increasing. US Department od Agriculture

Therefore, biotechnologists are looking for an alternative in microalgae, which are presented as an encouraging future because of their high yield, since one hectare of these organisms produces 10 times more biodiesel than one hectare of oil palm. Even so, this cutting-edge technology still needs to be refined to ensure a stable and sustainable energy future. Moreover, most biodiesel is currently extracted from edible seeds, so we are facing a great controversy: do we use these seeds to feed the population or to meet their energy requirements? The population will continue to grow unstoppably, as will their needs, so it becomes unsustainable to continue using edible seeds for fuel production.

Illegality and labour exploitation

Oil palm cultivation has helped many people in Indonesia and Malaysia. But many others cannot say the same. One of the reasons why landowners have expanded their crops into peatlands is because of the low population density in forest areas. People whose opinions on this matter are hardly taken into account. Normally, there are small nuclei of agricultural population that depend strongly on their humble crops. Fires and the consequent destruction of their way of life force them to move. Their lands are left free and optimal for expropriation, often illegal because of the violation of certain precepts. In addition, they are often forced to compete against the large landowners, simply because the chemicals they use in their plantations end up affecting the surrounding land and water sources, suffering sabotage that sometimes renders their meagre means of survival useless.

While it is true that this industry has alleviated the burden of unemployment, this does not mean that all plantation workers carry out their work under proper conditions. For some time now, there have been repeated reports of the exploitation to which many workers on plantations belonging to large companies are subjected. In 2016, Amnesty International published a controversial report providing evidence of the deplorable working conditions of workers from some plantations of suppliers and subsidiaries that supply palm oil to Wilmar, a major palm oil trader.

In many of these plantations, the most basic human rights are denied. Bloomberg

To that end, they interviewed 120 people employed on these plantations, including several children under 16 years of age. Their testimonies leave no room for doubt. Not only adults, but also the minors are exploited and abused. They have few protective measures and are often exposed to situations that endanger their health or directly their lives. For example, they often have to work with pesticides and fertilizers that are regulated by Indonesian law (i.e. only those who are trained can use them) with little or no protection measures or information about their use. Some people suffer serious health problems from poisoning by these agricultural products. It is true that they sometimes undergo medical tests, but they rarely have access to the results of such tests. To make matters worse, even Wilmar itself censored the use of certain products on its plantations, but there is evidence that its subsidiaries and suppliers have continued to use them.

Remuneration does not work on the basis of time worked, but on the basis of goals achieved, which are often unattainable. For example, if a harvester (who is always a man or a child) does not collect a certain amount of fruits, part of his salary is deducted even though he has exceeded the stipulated weekly hours (in Indonesia it is 40 hours a week) and has worked countless hours of overtime or, in the worst case, he can be dismissed for a season. This is a totally subjective factor, as Amnesty International found that each subsidiary of Wilmar and each company set their own targets.

Indonesia has laws against forced labour. Nevertheless, these laws do not seem to be of much use either, nor do those stipulating the minimum wage that an employee must earn. Since in these places, workers are paid by the goal achieved, they often return home after a hard day with an amount of rupees equivalent to 4 or 6 dollars. Many people are forced to work up to 12 hours a day to meet the targets. Imagine the hard work of a harvester for half a day…

This situation has reached such a point that workers have to bring their children and wives to help them overcome the unattainable goals and secure even a minimum of money to be able to eat for a month. Of course, their relatives work without any kind of contract. Involving a child in hard and dangerous work (often the bunches of fruits have to be collected from branches 20 meters high, and the work of collecting and transporting the masses of fruit is hard enough as it is) is not only forbidden by law in Indonesia but is a violation of basic human rights.

It seems that the psychological pressure to which employees are subjected is serious. During the interview for Amnesty International, they were very cautious about talking about the exploitation of their children, fearing that they might lose their jobs.

Amnesty International has revealed the dangerous conditions to which workers on some of these plantations are often subjected. Exposure to dangerous chemicals, excessive weight, workdays of more than 12 hours… Jakarta Globe

Some children had been working on these crops since they were 8 years old. They used their free time after school, weekends or holidays to help their parents. Others, directly, had to abandon the school because it was impossible for them to combine it with work in the crops. According to those interviewed, managers and supervisors of the plantations are aware of this reality, but prefer to ignore it and continue to violate human rights. In fact, they deny that these things happen in their plantations…

And, obviously, if there are irregularities with minors, there are also irregularities in terms of gender. Women’s work is restricted to maintenance units or offices, and it is rare to see a female worker with a permanent employment contract. Most of them have informal contracts that do not guarantee them access to social security or a minimum job stability, even if they have worked for these companies for years.

There are kids who have to leave school to help their father achieve the goals set by supervisors. Goldman Prize

Although Amnesty International’s report focuses on the Wilmar company, the truth is that they have been able to trace this painful reality back to the suppliers of other large companies (such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midland and many others). However, let’s keep in mind the year this report was published, 2016…

Malpractice at the Roundtable

We cannot end this post without talking about one of the great protagonists of this topic: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This is an initiative founded in 2004 by a group of NGOs and large international companies involved in oil palm plantations and palm oil production and supply chain in response to the undisputed negative impacts of this industry, which became too evident even then for society not to notice. Its mission is to improve in this respect and to manufacture products with palm oil in a sustainable and environmentally and worker-friendly manner. Thus, those products that carry palm oil obtained in a way that has not caused deforestation, pollution or the violation of workers’ rights receive the RSPO’s sustainable certificate.

Some of the international companies that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an initiative that seeks to modify the palm oil supply chain to make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly… Or so they say. RSPO

It currently has over 4000 members, including many of the corporations we have mentioned repeatedly throughout this post. There is also Wilmar, who has been a member since 2005. The Amnesty International report dates from 2016. Since 2004, satellite images have shown an increasingle deforested territory being replaced by palm crops in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Species continue to suffer and their populations continue to decline in those countries. In other words, they are lying to us. What they are trying to pass off as sustainable is far from sustainable. In fact, a group of environmental organisations, led by WWF and Greenpeace, set up an advisory panel, the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), to monitor the implementation of the Round Table’s objectives and to provide greater transparency in view of the fact that immorality is still rampant.

The alleged concern about the impacts of palm oil is a fiction. The RSPO is a smoke screen, a harlequin disguised as an environmentalist, a ruse to hide the real motivation of those behind this industry: pure profit. Their real aim is to wash away the image of palm oil, but in truth it seems that they are not making much to clean up the mess. It is not in their interest to stop the expansion of plantations. Palm oil is presented as a gold vein that still intends to last for many more years, and better still, to increase its production. In light of a constantly growing population and demand, it is irresistible to continue expanding the palm oil business. Profits are assured.

Supposedly, RSPO certification assures that the palm oil of a product has been obtained in a sustainable manner, but the complaints that continue to appear raise many doubts. RSPO

This ubiquitous ingredient will be with us for a long time to come. We will continue to see it on various labels with different nicknames. It will progressively appear more frequently as fuel for our vehicles and machines. Most of the public is still asking for it, and it is determined to satisfy our wishes. However, every time we read its name, let us remember everything that is behind this industry. Palm oil is the ideal representative of our consumer society: it shows us what lies behind our “over-consumer” lifestyle. The first thing is our comforts, and the rest will be seen. The problem is that this is a chimerical view. Those problems that we turn our backs on for the sake of our manic narcissism are the same ones that will sooner or later infect us in order to destroy our vain comforts.

We don’t want to take an extremist view. It is not a question of not consuming, but of doing so with common sense and responsibility, without overdoing it. Therefore, the next time we go to the supermarket, let us first spend a few minutes thinking about how we are going to act and the possible consequences that our actions may have on everything that we, illusorily, think does not affect us.


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