Palm Oil: Friend or Foe?

Palm Oil: Friend or Foe?

As the most commonly used vegetable oil on the planet, palm oil is present in almost every aspect of American life. You can find it in everything from margarine and ice cream to soap, detergent, and candles. It’s even found in pharmaceuticals and water treatment products. With such wide applications for one product, you might think it’s universally welcomed in every home, but the global impact of harvesting palm oil can outweigh the benefits of using it. It’s not the product itself, but rather the way in which it’s manufactured that creates so many problems.

The Increase in Palm Oil Production

Palm oil is an oil that comes from the reddish pulp of the fruit of the oil palm tree. The oil itself isn’t generally harmful; in fact, it’s quite a useful universal substance. But the manufacturer’s practices in harvesting palm oil have people up in arms worldwide because of environmental concerns.

Palm oil can be a profitable, easy to grow crop, so growers are naturally interested in planting as much land as possible with the trees. This huge increase in cultivation has led to massive deforestation in countries around the world. Animals, many of which are already on endangered species lists, are losing natural habitats, and growers often value increased acreage in plants over endangered animals.

It’s Not the Oil

Many environmentalists insist that the problem isn’t the palm oil itself, it’s the way it’s being grown and harvested. The oil palm tree is very productive, often yielding up to 10 times more oil per hectare than other oilseed crops. This means growers can produce more oil on less land. Today, palm oil represents almost 40 percent of the world’s edible oil supply, but it’s only grown on five percent of the oilseed crop dedicated land.

Palm oil is a naturally versatile oil, low in trans fats and useful in both edible and processing products. It’s estimated that almost half of all the products on grocery store shelves contain some form of palm oil or its derivatives.

It’s a useful product that’s relatively harmless when used correctly. So what’s the problem? The trouble is that growers tend to use land that might otherwise harbor endangered species for growing these trees. Palm oil trees grow in the same environment as tropical rainforests, which are a source of medicine, food and other materials, aside from being a vibrant ecosystem. Deforestation of the rainforests is also having a significant effect on climate change since it contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Problems with Palm Oil Growers

Environmentalists and concerned citizens see a wide variety of behaviors among growers that negatively impact the world. Some of the more serious concerns include:

  • About 50 orangutans are killed each week because of this deforestation, between being burnt to death and their homes being destroyed
  • Instead of growing palm oil on abandoned land, firms prefer to clear standing forests instead, because of the extra profit they can make from selling the wood
  • The fires used to clear the forests is causing massive air pollution in Southeast Asia, contributing to over 100,000 human deaths each year
  • The palm oil industry promotes child labor in Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to human rights violations
  • If nothing changes, scientists estimate that the rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia will be completely destroyed by the year 2022.

As widespread as its usage is, many people are making a sincere effort to get palm oil out of their diets and their lives. If you’ve decided to avoid palm oil, what are some of the best substitutes you’ve found for products that normally contain it?

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