The Concerned Users Guide To Palm Oil

The Concerned Users Guide To Palm Oil

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

Twelve years ago I was part of the team at Whole Earth Foods who took the UK food manufacturing industry to task for their over-reliance on hydrogenated fat. By publicising the groundbreaking work done in the USA by Walter Willet I like to think that we helped contribute to todays enlightened climate, where even the FSA has begun to advise consumers to avoid eating hydrogenated fat and the trans-fats it contains. Hydrogenated fat is very appealing to the food processing industry as it is solid at room temperature, has a long shelf life and tastes of very little. In many cases the obvious alternative to hydrogenated fat is palm oil, which has these same properties but contains no trans-fats and can be declared on-pack as a natural ingredient.

As a result sales of palm oil, and its derivatives palm stearine and palm olein, have been rocketing 28 million tonnes of palm oil are produced every year, making palm oil the second most popular vegetable oil after soya oil. It is estimated that palm oil is found in every third food product including chocolate, mayonnaise, sauces, margarine, biscuits, chips and muesli. There is plenty of palm oil in the natural food industry – not just in food but also in soaps, toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics and detergents.

Natural food companies such as Jordans use palm oil throughout their product range. NPD Manager Emma Bootman explains that we currently use a blended vegetable oil containing 60% rapeseed oil and 40% palm oil as the inclusion of the palm oil gives us an ambient stable natural vegetable oil without having to use any additives yet still giving us the shelf life quality and product texture that our consumers expect. However Emma admits that Jordans have recently reduced the level of saturated fats in their organic range by replacing organic palm oil with organic high-oleic sunflower oil.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) are not happy about our increasing reliance on palm oil and they have now issued a report entitled Greasy palms palm oil, the environment and big business calling for reform. The international trade in palm oil is held to be responsible for loss of tropical rainforest in Indonesia where palm acreage has increased by 118 percent in the past eight years. Frequently indigenous peoples land has been stolen and given to companies for the development of palm oil plantations. Human rights abuses and violent conflict are said to be commonly associated with this land theft. Biodiversity too is decimated, with 80-100% of mammals, birds and reptiles being destroyed.

Unsurprisingly the palm oil producers see things differently. They have formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which brings producers, food manufacturers and NGOs together to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil. In addition to the usual multi-national suspects members of the RSPO include The Body Shop and Oxfam and Aarhus of Kingston Upon Hull, formerly known as Anglia Oils. In response to the FoE report Tim Stephenson from Aarhus notes that Both FoE and the ethical investment organisation Isis recognised that a boycott of palm oil would be neither viable or helpful. Palm oil has a complex supply chain it is possible (but expensive) to buy identity-preserved palm oil. Perhaps this is why a FoE survey showed that 87% of UK companies dont know where their palm oil comes from.

Although there is not yet an agreed definition of what constitutes sustainability in terms of palm oil Aarhus and their sister organisation United Plantations of Malaysia have implemented an impressive list of policies including Integrated Pest Management, use of organic fertilisers and the provision of quality housing and schools for workers. Aarhus support the Word Wildlife Fund objective that by the end of 2005 high conservation value forests, freshwater ecosystems and habitats of key species will no longer be threatened by the expansion of palm oil. This is particularly important as the demand for additional land for palm plantations is expected to be a mind-boggling 6-10 million hectares over the next 20 years.

However sales of palm oil in Europe would undoubtedly be adversely affected if GM palm oil became widely available. And yet that is what Malaysian Palm Oil Association chief executive M.R. Chandran has called for, by publicly declaring that “the priority should be to develop transgenic palms for better oil quality, yield and minimal height”. To work in that direction, he added, “the industry must build alliances with established R&D institutions, universities and industry players, both locally and overseas, to make possible a quantum leap in applied and adaptive research work.”

One way of avoiding GM palm oil would be to move to organic palm oil, where GM technology would be banned as a matter of course. But would sourcing organic palm oil be any better for the environment ? The organic palms that Aarhus refine into organic palm oil are grown in Columbia, far away from the problematic plantations of Indonesia. However European demand for their Soil Association-certified product is currently very small. It seems that organic palm oil remains the best bet for the concerned manufacturer and consumer, with Aarhuss sustainable Malaysian palm oil the next best thing.

This article originally appeared in the April / May 2005 edition of Organic and Natural Business.