Friday, January 13, 2012

What is Palm Oil?

In recent years I have heard bits and pieces about palm oil and how it is used in many, many products that we consume (grocery and cosmetic items) and how it is impacting on precious tropical forests in south-east Asia, particularly orang-utan habitat. Other than these things, I don't know a lot more about palm oil or its issues.

I was reminded of this issue this morning when reading the finished box of soap as I took it from the bathroom and to the recycling bin. I think the brand is "Country Life" and it advertises itself as Australia made and owned and Palm Oil Free. You will also find in smaller print it is made from locally and imported ingredients (as most things do).

Anyway, I thought I should have a look into what "palm oil" is. WWF has an informative webpage that describes palm oil as being derived from the "fruit of the oil palm tree", which comes from two main oil palm trees (African Oil Palm and American Oil Palm). Further information about palm oil and its uses from WWF site include that

"the palm fruit yields two distinct oils - palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit, is edible and used in food. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used mainly in the manufacture of cosmetics."

The growing of oil palm trees seems to be quite widespread around the tropics, with palm oil plantations in our region being focused in Malayasia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, these plantations are apparently often associated with illegal or unsustainable deforestation activities (although I will have to investigate this further).

Once again, the consciousness of the consumer can make a difference to such matters and certainly impact on businesses and activities outside our national boundaries. We can achieve this just by making informed choices about the products we choose to buy.

As the website states that if we just stop "our" consumption of palm oil, it is likely that the product will then just be purchased by another "user". But, if appropriate assistance (in the way of education and trade support, for example) can be provided to primary producers in these regions (many countries being third world nations) there is the possibility they will be able to modify their  businesses towards sustainable practices. There may also be better planning (through assistance) for new plantations, thereby reducing or preventing deforestation of these important areas.

My understanding is that the GreenPalm group is supporting such actions for this industry through the development of a certificate trading program for palm oil, which includes the labelling of products containing sustainably produced palm oil. WWF and a number of other interested groups also seem to tackling the issues and providing education to consumers and producers, as well as developing standards for responsible palm oil plantations, through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Again, it can come down to being conscious of your choices, choose products that have sustainably produced palm oil or no palm oil (where there is sustainable product alternatives) and try to find out where the "imported ingredients" come from and generally make informed decisions.  

If you'd like to know more details of what countries and brands are using palm oil, as well as their commitment to utilise sustainable palm oil sources in the future, the WWF has developed the Palm Oil Buyers' Scorecard 2011: Measuring the Progress of Palm Oil Buyers.

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