Why Sustainable Palm Oil Deserves A Second Look

This post was created in paid partnership
with New Hope Network and Daabon.

As a member of a food coop, we voted many years ago to be champions of upholding organic standards, supporting companies and brands with integrity, and banning those with poor reputations from unfair labor practices to questionable ingredients.  One ingredient that has been called into question and scrutiny is palm oil. And since taking the stance and reducing palm sourced products, it became an out of sight, out of mind issue until this moment.

In the current world of natural and health driven products, we are bombarded with marketing buzzwords that are used to trigger trust and confidence. There are so many distinctions between certifications, that at the end, it can be confusing as to which brands are authentic, tried, and true. With the growth of social media as a predominant source of news and information spreading, when something is exposed as untrue or harmful, the call to arms happens within seconds, making the social instance viral instantaneously. This is particularly true when it comes to facets of society that cause concern or harm to people or the environment. Perhaps this is a benefit as more environmental causes have great impact and champions because of the vast sharing. 

I stopped mid-typing to check some of my beloved products to see if they contained palm oil. Everything seemingly was free until I checked vegetable bouillons I use and was surprised to see “sustainably harvested Palm Fruit Oil”.  My deep dive into the world of this rich fruit commenced.

Why Palm Oil?

It is a Potent Powerhouse

Palm fruit and oil

The history of palm oil is as rich as its nutrient density. With origins dating back more than 5000 years from my second home in West Africa, I’ve been familiar with palm for many years. The most common application I remember as a child was its use in shea butter imparting a signature, yellow hue and making the butter more malleable. That hue is result of the oil being rich in Vitamin A and E and imparts a red color. These natural antioxidants act as scavengers of oxygen free radicals and are believed to play a protective role in the improvement of energy levels and vision, supporting long-term health, bolstering immunity and staving off signs of premature aging. It is used to help support weight management and healthy metabolism, maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels and support brain health.

A study examining the cooking of palm oil at high temperatures showed that it does not have an adverse effect on blood lipids. Most oils become rancid from exposure to heat, light, and oxygen, but it is naturally protected by its high levels of vitamin E antioxidants.

It is Multifaceted and Support Economic Structure

In the last 40 years, palm oil has become one of the major vegetable oils used in everything from food products to cosmetics.

Palm used in soap and scrubs

Because of its multi-faceted application, palm oil’s popularity grew significantly in a short period of time. As a result, with any crop that becomes popular, production has increased at a pace that has led to exploitation of land, labor, and resources by some. 

Palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil crop, which makes it very efficient. It needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oi. Palm trees produce 4-10 times more oil than other crops per unit of cultivated land. This makes it the least expensive vegetable oil in the world. Replacing palm oil with other types of vegetable oil (such as sunflower, vegetable oil or rapeseed oil) would result in the conversion of more forest into agricultural land, which may prove serious environmental damage.

A total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia. There are also millions of farmers in other oil producing countries that depend on its production for their existence. Thus, stopping the production of palm oil would create havoc problems for these farmers and their families they support with it.

Countering the Environmental Impact

Palm fruit in the wild

The major question is can palm oil be produced responsibly and sustainably? Methane is the second leading active contributor to climate impact. Typically, methane production is associated with cows but surprisingly, palm oil production has the methane impact equivalent to 22,000 driving vehicles. Palm oil wastewater lagoons have been discovered being full of methane gas leaking at staggeringly high rates.

Setting A New Sustainable Standard

Transparency is key in separating the real from the fake. Part of granting consumers like us an opportunity to distinguish high quality and socially responsible brands from the rest are certificating bodies that do necessary work to uphold standards. Labels such as USDA organic, Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified are just some of the certifications that we are exposed to in the natural product world. When you see a USDA organic label, we are assured that the product “Limits pesticides and other chemical inputs; supports soil fertility; leverages compost, animal manures and green manures; means non-GMO.” Now such a label exists for the palm oil industry. RSPO “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil” which certifies that a company or product “Protects forests, ecosystems and communities where palm production occurs; reduces fires and pesticides; supports workers’ rights; consults communities before plantation development.”

Developed in 2008 by the RSPO, was an environmental and social law which must be obeyed by companies so as to ensure Certified and Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) production. When strictly adhered to, these laws can help in drastic reduction and minimization of adverse effects.

One of the companies leading by example and shaping the “Future of Palm Oil” is Daabon, a leading producer of sustainable and organic palm oil products. As a family owned company with 100 year legacy of growing and producing sustainable oil in Colombia, they are leading by example by being accountable, transparent, and creating sustainable solutions about their operations.

Sustainability is respect for all forms of life. Working with nature, and never against it.”
 – Patricia Apreza, Director of Social Management, Daabon

By implementing responsible practices, they have shifted the palm oil narrative.  Practices include deforestation-free, farming without the use of gmos or chemicals and utilizing a methane-recapturing plant at their main mill.

How Can You Contribute?

There are several ways we can support the industry and influence the future of sustainable palm oil. Hold all brands who use palm oil accountable and encourage them to get their supply from sustainable sources. When you are out in the food world and shopping, check your ingredients and sources to ensure you are supporting the solution. Look for certification labels from USDA, Rainforest Alliance, and Fair Trade Certified, and RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. And last, but certainly not least, share and education your friends and family because sharing is caring. 

Yoli Ouiya

Yoli Ouiya is a spokesperson, consultant and speaker on sustainability initiatives. Yoli is an omnipresent part of the Green movement. She has been dubbed the “Queen of Green”, noting her function as the go-to social media presence for everything “green”.