Earlier industrial eras, not having thought far ahead into the future, had cost minimization and marginal profits on top of their priorities. In recent decades, environmentalists have been clamoring for reforms in destructive manufacturing practices to become more heard by the public. Only recently, too, are businesses that for so long relied on the economical use of palm oil along with carbon-emitting practices, becoming more in touch with goals geared toward sustainably.
News purports that endemic forests in the tropics are being sacrificed to give way to palm plantations. And, while this happens on alarmingly massive scales by the hour, we are yet to pay more attention to the issue. It is only fitting to ponder on the following questions to have understood more deeply the severity of the palm industry’s environmental impact:
What is palm oil for?
Palm and the plethora of products derived from it is probably the central theme, the lifeblood that keeps the manufacturing industry running. The average consumer may not know it, but palm oil forms part of almost all manufactured goods, including cosmetics, home chemicals, food, and automotive fuel. While it is primarily used as a cooking oil in developing nations, palm oil serves a bigger purpose for countries with big manufacturing plants.
It is only understandable why palm oil is highly sought out in the manufacturing industry. Processing palm fruit or kernels to become crude or palm kernel oil is relatively cheap. Palm oil owes its versatility to having no distinctive odor or color. Because of its buttery consistency at room temperature, it is highly viable as an additive to food products like sandwich spreads and cosmetic products like lipsticks. It also serves as a preservative for its oxidation-resistant properties.
The pet and livestock industry also hugely relies on palm oil. Pet food requires high levels of fatty acids, which can be found in palm oil to facilitate vitamin absorption in animals. And, as we are yet to see the demand for meat and dairy-based products go down, so does that of palm oil.
Many would ask whether wood from palm trees has any use at all. While plantations could lucratively turn the trees into a lumber source, palm wood contains about 70 percent moisture. That’s why it decomposes faster than industry-grade timber. On the other hand, it could be a very sustainable biofuel alternative.
Why is palm oil bad?
The production of palm oil hasn’t always been the subject of criticism by environmental activists until recently. The reason for this is the conversion of expansive forest lands into plantations to meet heightened palm oil demand, so much at the expense of wildlife like orangutans, rhinoceroses, and elephants their habitat and lives. This also releases high amounts of greenhouse gases and, thus, worsening climate change.
What’s even more unfortunate is this is mainly happening in the African and Southeast Asian regions, which are home to 80 percent of the world’s species. The destructive slash-and-burn practices employed in our planet’s rainforests are too severe. Our response could not be delayed further either.
What steps are industries taking to eliminate its use?
Multinational corporations are paving the way in declaring their pledge to source oil and support livelihoods in the process responsibly. By teaming up with non-governmental organizations like Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), these MNCs are ever more intentional with sourcing palm oil only from certified sources and setting year-on-year reduction rates to achieve zero net deforestation. Also, they are taking initiatives to educate local farmers on sustainable farming practices.
Moreover, industries belonging to the manufactured goods sector continue to explore ways to reuse energy. A notable one is cosmetic companies using emptied product containers to fuel their machinery. Resource-intensive sectors like the upholstery industry are now exploring the use of recycled wood-derived material called Tencel.
Is it possible to eliminate palm oil from the global supply chain?
On the one hand, palm farmlands occupy 10 percent of the planet’s total land area yet comprise almost 40 percent of the world’s vegetable market. Had it been from another plant source, it would have to occupy ten times as much land. That said, the problem could be approached as not solely targeting the production of palm but zeroing in on deforestation as a whole.
Palm oil continues to be ubiquitous, and industries cannot yet wean off of its use because of its functions that are hard to replicate. Nevertheless, scientific breakthroughs are underway. Researchers are looking into altering the genetic makeup of plants like tobacco to enable them to grow oil-producing leaves.
Provided that the research continues to be backed financially, we are looking at the possibility of growing these artificially oil-rich plants out of the tropics. Simply put, finding a sustainable alternative will take time. If we do, it will sell at a premium at first before it becomes fully mass-produced. Realistically speaking, we are far from becoming palm oil-free ultimately.