Although TCU students may feel disconnected from the environment halfway across the world, our actions – even as simple as purchasing Halloween candy – can impact wildlife thousands of miles away.
Palm oil is in roughly half the products available at the supermarket, from ice cream and instant noodles to cosmetics and cleaning supplies. Extremely versatile, the oil can create a smoother texture, increase shelf life, and even run engines as a biofuel, all without altering the properties or effectiveness of the products.
However, the global demand for palm oil has led to unsustainable palm oil plantations replacing rainforests, which contributes to global emissions and decreased air quality.
According to National Geographic, palm oil has caused the destruction of 16,000 square miles of pristine rainforest on the Indonesian island of Borneo alone.
Roughly 90% of oil palms are grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, which both house many unique species, like the 400 remaining Sumatran tigers, critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran rhinos close to extinction.
Choosing sustainably sourced palm oil, though, can potentially prevent their extinction.
Sustainable palm oil: The right alternative
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) offers certifications so people can get a sugar fix and other key commodities without any negative effects.
Nearly one-fifth of the world’s palm oil supply is certified by the organization.
Companies and growers must follow more than 130 principles and criteria to be certified, developed with input from RSPO members, that prevent deforestation and damaging the rainforest and the local communities.
The regulations are to ensure that growers who depend on harvesting the crop receive a decent living wage, to limit pest management and prohibit plantations in locations with significant ecological, biological or sociocultural importance.
Landgrowers, who follow the International Labour Organization’s standards on human rights and labor exploitation, can sell sustainably sourced palm oil for a premium price.
Certified-sustainable palm oil provides a welcome alternative to rainforest devastation, unlike avoiding palm oil altogether.
Boycotting palm oil does more harm than good
Vegetable oils like soybean and coconut require 4-10 times more land to produce the same yield as palm oil, and oil palms can be harvested twice a month for an average of 25 years.
Importantly, alternative products lack regulation and are often grown in the same areas as oil palms, so refusing palm oil could still cause deforestation.
Boycotting palm oil also stifles sustainability in the global palm oil market, where the largest importers – India, China, and Indonesia – buy regardless of environmental impact.
One of the biggest challenges regarding palm oil for Chelsea Wellmer, the coordinator for the Palm Oil and Conservation Programs at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, is simply awareness of its complexity, stating that palm oil “is not a black and white issue.”
According to Wellmer, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo first believed boycotting could solve the problem of palm oil. However, after a team visited plantations in Indonesia and spoke with locals and experts, they realized sustainably grown palm oil was the best option.
The oil palm itself isn’t the problem, but how it is used.
RSPO Deputy US Representative Cameron Plese has not only seen the effects of unsustainable palm oil, but also witnessed Mexico’s use of oil palms on degraded cattle land to revitalize the land and soil.
“It is, in the end, just a crop,” Plese said.
What TCU can do
The TCU community can have a positive impact on the environment through everyday shopping choices.
By downloading the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Palm Oil app, students and faculty can search for brands in a database of RSPO members and scan product barcodes to check if they were made with sustainable palm oil.
If a company is not listed, the app allows you to reach out and ask why. Some may respond that they purchase RSPO-certified palm oil; however, since they are not members, they are not held to the same standards and transparency.
Both Wellmer and Plese believe companies have responded to demands for sustainable palm oil as the world begins to examine its environmental impact more closely, which extends to many other issues.
“It is far beyond a palm oil crisis,” Plese said. “There are a lot of commodities grown around the world and we have to make sure that they are all grown sustainably.”