Today is Biodiversity Day - a day to celebrate the variety and variability of plant and animal life on which the productivity of our ecosystem depends.
The greater the diversity in species the Earth has, the better it is for the natural sustainability of all life forms. But as recent media coverage has made all too apparent, our modern lives are having a devastating impact on many of the animals and wildlife on which this system depends.
The plight of the orang-utan is arguably one of the most significant and concerning of these human impact tragedies. As we continue to harvest Palm oil plantations in some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, the already endangered orang-utan populations are coming increasingly under threat, as are the pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.
WHAT IS PALM OIL?
Palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) comes from the fruit - both the flesh and the kernel - of oil palm trees. The trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply.
WHAT PRODUCTS IS IT IN?
Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil that has many different properties and functions, which is why it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets. It not only odourless and colourless, but it also lends a longer shelf-life, imparts crispy/crunchy textures and makes other products spreadable, as it is semi solid at room temperature. It’s no wonder then, that palm oil is found in everything from pizza, to doughnuts, chocolate, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world (not in the UK though!). Part of the reason for the ubiquitous nature of Palm oil is that it is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land.
In 2004, in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm oil was having on the environment, The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil was formed and set a production standard for producing and sourcing palm oil, to help accelerate the shift to a mainstream sustainable palm oil industry.
In 2012 the UK Government also set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?
According to the WWF, boycotting palm oil is not necessarily the answer (some alternative oils mean even more land, which then shifts the problem to other parts of the world and threatens other habitats). BUT, what we can do is demand more action to tackle the issues. In addition to the threat to wildlife, these include the matter of greenhouse gas production, exploitation of workers and also child labour, all of which the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address.
In terms of doing our bit, buying more certified palm oil free products in our weekly shop is inevitably a positive starting point, and this is something that Health Magazine’s new reusable #palmfreeshopper bags are designed to help promote the message of. The bags feature original artworks by Emily Jane Illustrations and Beth McGuinness Studio and are available for pre-orders at www.health-magazine.co.uk/ecoshop
📸 Chris Mullen