Palm oil has been consumed for 5,000 years. It is currently consumed by three billion people in more than 150 countries, making it the most consumed oil in the world. It’s estimated that nutrient-rich, natural palm oil can be found in about 50 percent of products in America’s supermarkets including baked goods, snacks, spreads, peanut butters and ice creams.
Reassuringly, palm oil is considered the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world. In Malaysia, which produces a large percentage of the world’s palm oil, there is a national legal mandate that all palm oil must be produced sustainably. Palm oil is not only higher yielding than such common oils as soy and canola, it also requires significantly less fertilizer, pesticides and energy to produce.
Fun fact: Malaysian oil palm farmers encourage birds to take up residence in their trees, which grow for 25 to 30 years. Having birds live on the oil palm plantations controls pests, reducing the farmers’ dependency on chemical pesticides.
So why does the “no palm oil” conversation persist? If access to palm oil were to be eliminated, what impact would that have on our global environment?
Proponents of palm oil boycotts point to rainforest and animal habitat destruction as a main cause of concern for using palm oil. However, as explained in this Open Mind article, boycotts may worsen the situation. The article states, “The problem, experts warn, is that giving up palm oil would require us to find another, more sustainable option, and oil palm is more efficient than other vegetable oil crops, producing more per unit of land; soy, coconut or canola require between four and ten times more land than palm to yield the same amount of oil.”
The article quotes ecologist Eric Meijaard who told the publication, “Saying no to palm oil means saying yes to other oil crops, and it is clear that we do not understand the consequences of this displacement of the problem.” Meijaard also warned readers, “If you don’t understand the impact of a palm oil boycott on sustainability goals you need to be very careful pushing for one.”
Instead, a surging number of global manufacturers are choosing to only purchase sustainably produced palm oil, thereby ensuring that their use of this ubiquitous ingredient does not harm the planet or its people. This list includes Unilever which makes and sells more than 1,000 brand names worldwide.
Malaysia’s century-old plantations are professionally managed through Good Agricultural Practices in compliance with corporate governance and social responsibility. This minimizes the impact of plantation activities on the environment and biodiversity. In fact, oil palm plantations in Malaysia are often cited as the best model of tropical agriculture and Malaysian standards are usually referred to as an industry benchmark.
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