Do we need to use palm oil, and what is the impact on the environment from harvesting this type of oil?
The use of palm oil has come under the scrutiny of many activist groups recently, as the harvesting of palm trees in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia results in significant habitat loss of orangutans, particularly the Sumatran orangutan and Sumatran tigers.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the reddish pulp of the palm fruits. The fruit is harvested and the pulp is pressed to extract the oil. Palm oil has a reddish colour because of its high beta carotene content, however palm oil that has been refined, bleached and deodorised (RBD) is clear in colour and lacks carotenes. Palm oil is 49% saturated, 39% monounsaturated and around 10% polyunsaturated (1). The red palm oil is usually bottled for use as a cooking oil, whereas the refined bleached product is used as a replacement fat in many processed foods such as potato crisps, cakes and biscuits. The oil is also being used as a biofuel,which does have an environmental impact. Its popularity comes from the fact that palm oil can procure up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soyabeans, rapeseed or sunflower.
The kernel of the palm fruit seed can also be pressed to produce palm kernel oil or palm kernel extract (PKE). This is also an edible oil and is 81.5% saturated fat (1). Coconut oil is different to palm oil as it is a different plant; the copra oil extracted from the flesh of the coconut is 82.5% saturated fat (1).
A report from Dumelin in 2009 (2) has indicated that the production of palm oil seems to require less energy, emits less greenhouse gases and uses less land than the production of coconut oil. However, more substances are emitted from palm plantations that contribute to acidification and eutrophication. This is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients that induce excessive growth of plants and algae. This process may result in oxygen depletion of the water body (2). The main issue is the overall environmental impact to the forest and natural habitat of native peoples and animals. Deforestation and palm planting are disrupting the natural habitat of many of the world's endangered animals such as the Sumatran orangutan and Sumatran tiger. Agencies such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth claim that deforestation is more damaging for the climate than the benefits gained by using a palm oil as a biofuel. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is typically emitted during fuel combustion in production processes. In addition, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are emitted during palm oil production (3).
PKE is used in making dairy feed for animals. The PKE is further extracted to make Palm kernel expeller. Ruminant animals can extract the protein and oils from the expeller and it is used to provide a good source of energy for animals when grass is scarce (4). The Dairy industry has stated that the extract they use is from certified sustainable plantations. There is some debate amongst the environmental groups whether all the plantations are indeed sustainable. This is a huge political debate and more investigations are needed to confirm both sides of the story.
The RSPO has stakeholders from 7 sectors of the palm oil industry: palm oil producers, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/ investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations. The group was established in 2004 with the objective to promote the use and growth of sustainable oil palm products. It currently has over 4000 international members (5). In order for a company to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, there are various criteria which they must comply with. When properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the local communities and environment. Not all companies or plantation owners are members, and only around 19% of palm oil produced is certified by RSPO (5), so more work is needed.
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