Vegetable oils: ethics, environment and health

edition 4This the unedited version of my ‘ethical oils’ article from Edition 4 of

The Australian Vegan Magazine

You can order your back copy here.


What is Palm oil?

Palm oil comes from the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.), a tropical crop that produces over four times more oil than other oil crops. It’s also the cheapest vegetable oil to purchase, making it the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, and a popular source of biodiesel. The World Wildlife Fund says Palm oil and its derivatives are found in about half of all packaged items in supermarkets. It’s found in fast foods, household cleaning products, personal care and cosmetic products such as lipstick and shampoo, and products ranging from margarines and breakfast cereals to chocolates, instant noodles and ice creams. Driven by demand for these products, palm oil production nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013 and its popularity continues to grow.

In years gone by, the United Nations saw palm oil an environmentally-friendly, economically-viable “magic bullet” that would help struggling farmers in undeveloped nations build economic stability while also providing cheap calories, but palm oil’s rosy glow quickly faded. Palm oil has dramatically improved the economies of producing countries, but it’s come at great expense to the lives of many, and it’s a significant contributor to deforestation and climate change. Indonesia and Malaysia have so far been the main producers of palm oil.

What’s wrong with palm oil?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably worked out by now that there is a massive campaign underway to save the orangutans in Indonesia. “Join the palm oil resistance movement!” is the rallying cry. Orangutans are losing their habitat, dying due to palm oil induced deforestation and being actively and viciously persecuted by poachers and traders who now, thanks to palm oil, have access to areas that were once inaccessible. The parents are beaten, burned, mutilated and killed while the babies are taken for the pet trade.

More recently, palm-oil activists have added animals such as tigers and elephants to their list of endangered species. Every time a forest is destroyed, lives are lost on a massive scale and the survivors are left homeless. Proboscis monkeys, otters, pigs, and crocodiles, not to mention 90 species of fish are just some of the beings impacted by successive waves of clear-cutting, oil-palm tree cultivation, and palm-oil production. A comprehensive study published in 2014 in the journal Nature Climate Change found that Indonesia was losing more rainforest than Brazil, in spite of its relatively small size. The study found that in 2012, Indonesia lost 840,000 hectares of its primary forest, compared to 460,000 hectares in Brazil, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of forest loss in the world.

Deforestation also contributes to global climate change, especially when peatlands are destroyed. Peat is a water-logged soil layer made up of dead and decaying plant matter. Peatlands are vital to the reduction of global warming because they store carbon and other greenhouse gasses, with Southeast Asia, where palm oil plantations are blossoming, containing three quarters of the world’s tropical peat-soil carbon. Peatlands aren’t ideal for growing oil palm plantations because they are too wet, so they have to be drained. As the peat decomposes, carbon is released into the atmosphere and the drying peat becomes highly flammable. Some fires start accidentally, but many are lit deliberately to help clearing the land, with Indonesia having some of world’s largest fires on record. In 2012, fires set by palm oil companies burned throughout most of the year, the smoke and smog from fires causing respiratory problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore.

The 2015 Sumatran fires destroyed 8,000 sq miles of rainforest, may have contributed to the early deaths of an estimated 100,000 people and emitted more CO2 than the whole of the UK that year. In the 1997 fires, Borneo’s orangutan population was reduced by one-third when close to 8,000 were burned to death or directly killed by farm workers as they tried to escape or purposefully driven back into the flames. Poachers take advantage of these burns to kill fleeing animals like the Sumatran rhino, which became officially extinct in Malaysia in 2015, with less than 100 remaining elsewhere. Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions globally, containing around 20% of all plant, animal and marine species on the planet! It has 4 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as areas rich in biodiversity that are under threat from humans, with 70% of the original habitat having been lost.

Peat soil tends to be too acidic for oil palms, so chemicals are often added to offset the acidity in the soil. Liberal use of toxic fertilizers and chemicals further contaminates soil, groundwater, and crops, while tons of untreated waste from palm oil-mills is discharged into rivers and seeps into surrounding lands. Pesticide use isn’t monitored or controlled on plantations and workers on plantations generally aren’t provided with protection from the hazardous chemicals they are forced to work with. This is just one of many human rights abuses with which the industry is riddled. In many cases, palm oil farm workers end up like indentured servants, struggling to pay back debt. Labour trafficking, child labour, the illegal seizure of indigenous peoples’ lands and the long-term abuse of temporary contracts are other problems, all of which are typical of any crop that is in high demand globally.

Is palm oil cheap because it’s high yielding, or because it’s being grown in remote areas away from prying eyes where labour and land is cheap and abuses go unchecked? Indonesia may be where all eyes are currently focused, but the palm oil problem is spreading. Recent studies suggest palm oil may be an emerging threat to the Peruvian Amazon.

Why the debate in vegan circles?

Some vegans don’t see palm oil as a vegan issue at all, while others feel it detracts from the vegan message. Animal activists who advocate for better conditions for animal species being used by humans, are far more likely to boycott palm oil or advocate for sustainable sources, whereas vegan abolitionists, who want to completely abolish animal use and abuse, prefer to focus their efforts on encouraging veganism rather than supporting what they see as single-issue campaigns.

Palm oil is a classic single-issue campaign, with a single animal species being chosen as the ‘face’ of the movement. Many people boycott palm oil “because of the orangutans,” when the issue is clearly far more complex. Non-vegans whose heart-strings are pulled by the plight of orangutans might stop using palm oil, but what about the dead animals on their plate, the dead animals they are wearing, or the tested-on-animals personal-care products they are using? And what makes orangutans more important than all the other species of life that are lost whenever an entire forest is destroyed?

“Worrying about palm oil makes it all too complicated,” complained a vegan friend of mine. “Where do we draw the line? Almost all products grown in the world are somehow connected to deforestation or land-clearing as well as killing off native animals and birds. These animals are the victims of a non-vegan world which inflicts violence onto non-humans for the sake of profit. We do of course have to eat to live so it is not reasonable to boycott wheat to save kangaroos or fruit to save corellas or palm oil to save orangutans. The answer is to make a vegan world! Not boycott vegan products!”

Another vegan friend doesn’t believe palm oil is really a major driver of deforestation at all. “Palm oil is not the primary driver of deforestation in Indonesia -timber, paper and cardboard is. Palm oil is just what they grow in the place of the forests, it could well have been bananas or anything else.” The Union of Concerned Scientists say that between 2000 and 2010, clearing forests to grow “fast wood” paper plantations for cardboard packaging, fast-food wrappers, printer paper, clothing and junk mail, caused more deforestation than palm oil or coal mining. Before palm oil was even a thing, the company most infamous for its activities in the region was Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the largest pulp and paper producers worldwide. Named Indonesia’s “most notorious forest destroyer” by Greenpeace, pressure from activists eventually paid off, with APP launching a zero-deforestation pledge in 2013 and a commitment to retire 7,000 hectares of acacia plantations, and restore the areas to natural forests, in 2015.

Research done in 2016 by Global Forest Watch found that oil palm and wood fiber plantations, mainly for pulp and paper industries, were the two largest contributors to forest loss in Indonesia. Nearly 4 million acres and 3.7 million acres of primary forests had been converted to oil palm and wood fiber plantations respectively since 2000, but this was just inside the ‘concession areas’: “While one can argue that forest loss inside concessions areas is legal to some extent, forest loss outside concessions boundaries also took place at an alarming rate… 8.9 million acres… Recent analysis also shows that forest loss outside the concessions was largely due to conversion of forested land to oil palm plantations.”

Why go to all the trouble of cutting down forests and converting peatlands when there are extensive grasslands and degraded areas available much better suited to this crop? A 2002 report titled The State of the Forest: Indonesia, by the Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) and Global Forest Watch (GFW), explained that gaining a land-clearing licence (IPK) was more profitable for most companies because clear-cutting and selling the timber to wood-processing industries provides profit over and above that expected from future palm oil harvests. “Indonesia’s palm oil industry is dominated by some of the same conglomerates that control the logging, wood processing, and pulp and paper industries, thus tightening the connections among forest clearance, wood supply, and plantation establishment.”

Vegan but not palm-oil free? You are already making a big difference.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, in their report What’s Driving Deforestation? list beef, soy, palm oil and wood products as the four major commodity drivers of deforestation, responsible for more than half of the world’s tropical deforestation. Of the four, beef has the largest impact, responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares every year. “Beef is responsible for more than twice as much deforestation as the other three commodities combined,” they say, referencing a 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies’ Global Forest Atlas, says cattle ranching is responsible for as much as 80 percent of current deforestation in all Amazonian countries. About 450,000 square kilometers of land has been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon alone, to accommodate a herd of more than 200 million head of cattle. A further 24 to 25 million hectares is devoted to the production of soy. Only about 6% of soybeans grown throughout the world are used in food production for human consumption; most of it is used to feed chickens, pigs, cows and farmed fish, and the rest of it is used to produce vegetable oil and biodiesel. Growing demand for meat and dairy products has seen soybean production double globally over the past twenty years or so, with around 480,000 hectares of forest and life destroyed for soy in major-soy producing tropical countries.

In a 2016 survey of more than 550 major companies with ties to the major commodities driving climate change, Forest Trends found that 61 percent of companies active in palm oil made commitments to cleaning up their chains, compared to only 15 percent of those active in the cattle industry. In its December 2016 report Sleeping Giants of Deforestation, the think tank Global Canopy Programme (GCP) said that even though the cattle industry is the largest commodity driver, only about a quarter of companies that operate within the cattle product supply chain have policies in place regarding environmental impacts.

Palm-oil: boycott or source sustainably grown?

Palm oil in disguise

Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.)

Many products that use palm oil aren’t clearly labeled. Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many names. When palm oil is used in cosmetics it must be labelled, but it’s usually listed as Elaeis guineensis, the botanical name for the oil palm. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) doesn’t require companies to specifically label palm oil, allowing it to be hidden behind a generic ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’ label. If it’s a vegan food product, check to see if it contains saturated fat. If it does, the ‘vegetable oil’ is fairly likely to be palm oil. CHOICE is calling for mandatory labelling of palm oil so that consumers make informed decisions. You can check out sites like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Humane Society International for more information on products containing palm oil, or check out Palm Oil Action’s shopping guide on their website.

You can stick with products featuring a green palm label, which means the producer is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but this doesn’t necessarily mean the product contains certified sustainable palm oil, it just means the company has made a commitment to eventually purchase it. The RSPO certifies a range of options which vary in their degree of sustainability or environmental impact, ranging from Identity Preserved Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) which is 100% certified sustainable and fully traceable to a single source, all the way through to Book and Claim/GreenPalm, a trading scheme where certificates are purchased by companies to offset their usage of uncertified palm oil.

Many vegans consider this greenwashing: making declarations of sustainability where there are none. This lack of transparency is the reason some vegans are avoiding all palm oil, certified or not. Others feel the certification system is a step in the right direction, however imperfect, and it’s a good way to lobby for change. Groups like Palm Oil Investigations argue that contacting brands and encouraging them to shift to actual sustainable palm oil is preferable to full boycotts because palm oil companies aren’t going out of business anytime soon and if no one demands truly sustainable options, nothing will change. In a quest to improve its system, the RSPO recently launched a new label called RSPO Next, which allows palm oil growers to brand their products as exceeding the association’s minimum standards on environmental and social responsibility.

Is there hope for an alternative vegetable oil crop that might be less destructive and easier to monitor? In 2015 scientists announced an exciting alternative to palm oil, derived from a yeast called Pulcherrima, which can be grown virtually anywhere with the land requirement for commercial production being 10 or even 100 times less than palm oil, but the cost of production is not yet comparable to that of palm oil.

How do other cooking oils compare ethically?

Palm oil wasn’t always the darling of the vegetable oil industry. Once upon a time, it was olive oil. In 2008 The Ecologist magazine reported that parts of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal were turning into deserts and suffering water shortages because of the intense olive farming being done in the area. “To meet this new appetite mass-market brands are produced intensively, so supermarkets can sell it in high volumes at lower prices.” A consultant on agricultural and environmental policies in Europe at the time described the situation as “an environmental catastrophe”. Spain was suffering its fourth consecutive year of drought, and yet more than 80 per cent of the country’s water was being devoted to irrigated crops, with olive companies drilling water resources not touched for thousands of years, all for a few more olives.

The extraction of olive oil generates up to 80% more byproduct than oil. Olive processing waste (OPW) is not easily biodegradable and most olive oil producing nations have no general policy for disposal of this highly phytotoxic, antimicrobial waste. It contains a poisonous compound called phenol which can result in serious environmental damage if not disposed of properly, so it needs to be detoxified before it can be used for other purposes. These include being used as a pesticide, or as a cheap residual pulp to bulk the food fed to animals in the agricultural industry. The detoxification process is too expensive for developing countries so the waste is dumped into rivers and lakes or used for farming irrigation. This contaminates ground water and promotes excessive growth of algae which depletes the water of oxygen, killing aquatic plants, fish and other animal populations.

What about coconut oil, the latest wonder-oil to hit the shelves? Monoculture coconut farms are replacing native plants and reducing biodiversity. Many governments are subsiding chemical fertilizers to help their farmers improve production in these damaged soils, which further damages the local biodiversity while also polluting soil, water and air. Coconut farmers are among the poorest of the poor in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, because they are forced to sell to middlemen who resell the coconuts to factories for as much as 50% more. Even with coconut-oil products fetching higher and higher prices in western markets, many farmers are earning less now than their parents in the same industry in years gone by. If fair trade standards don’t improve, the coconuts will stop coming, with struggling farmers selling off their land, or converting to more profitable crops like palm oil.

Farmers are cutting costs by using pig-tailed macque monkeys, who can collect 500-900 more coconuts per day than human workers… and they don’t need to be paid. Purchased from trainers who run breeding farms, or from poachers who trap them in the forest (often killing nursing mothers to steal their babies) trained monkeys live their lives in shackles, and labor long hours to the point of exhaustion. The low wages paid to coconut farmers and the abuse of pig-tailed macques won’t change unless consumers demand action from the companies who are profiting from these situations, and there will always be an economic incentive for monkey trainers to open their schools to the public if tourists keep spending money to visit them.

Vegetable oil spills and safe disposal

The problems created by the vegetable oils profiled above are fairly typical of vegetable oils in general. Even the finished product can be an environmental hazard. Petroleum spills may hog the press, but when the large tanks and pipelines used for vegetable oil distribution fail, or an accident occurs, large quantities of vegetable oil spill into rivers, lakes and harbors. The oil suffocates birds, animals and plants, damages waterways, creates rancid odours and sets the stage for toxic fires.

On a smaller, but no less damaging scale, packaged food producers, restaurants, fast-food outlets and home kitchens also contribute to the destructive effect of vegetable oils on the environment when they don’t dispose of used oils responsibly. Commercial businesses enlist the aid of organisations such as Environmental Oil who will collect and recycle their used oil into biofuel or stockfeed for the animal agriculture industry. Domestically, most environmental organisations advise pouring used cooking oils into a sturdy container once it has cooled. When it’s full, put the lid on and throw it into the rubbish bin. Use a paper towel to wipe excess oil from cooking pans and throw this out with the rubbish. These aren’t ideal solutions, but they sure beat pouring it down the sink or damaging your compost.

Do you want to use less oil or go oil free?

Consider going whole-foods plant-based! Consuming less processed, refined and pre-packaged foods is a pretty handy way to avoid palm oil and improve your health at the same time. Most commercial vegetable oils are highly processed. After being extracted using petroleum by-products, they are degummed using acid and neutralised using caustic soda. Then they are bleached, deodorised and dewaxed to produce colourless, clear and odourless oils, and finally, preservatives may be added to extend shelf life.

Vegetable oil is virtually devoid of micronutrients, while the calories in a single tablespoon are equivalent to a small bowl of brown rice. As Dr. Joel Fuhrman says, “health equals nutrients divided by calories.” In other words, the more micronutrients you can get in the fewest number of calories, while still eating whole foods, the healthier you’ll be. You can reduce your dependence on vegetable oils by learning how to cook without them. There are quite a few leading-edge health practitioners who advocate whole-food oil-free approaches to eating, with wonderful recipes and cookbooks, such as Kimberly Snyder, Dr Joel Fuhrman, T. Colin Campbell, Dr Esselstyn, and Ramses Bravo. The website OhSheGlows is a fantastic site for recipes and closer to home we have wholefoodsplantbasedhealth.com.au, an incredible resource provided by Australia’s leading whole-foods plant-based professionals, Dr Malcolm MacKay and Jenny Cameron.

As vegan dieticians Davis and Melina point out in their book Becoming Vegan, a whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) diet is rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, fibre, vitamins and minerals, but make sure you are getting reliable sources of iodine, B12 and vitamin D. A WFPB diet is effective in the prevention and treatment of chronic disease, and affordable, but it can be labour intensive. For this reason, and to boost nutrient intake, it helps to include lightly processed foods such as tofu, nut and seed butters, and non-dairy milks and yogurts. All plant foods contain some fat, with green leafy land and sea vegetables being particularly healthy sources. If you are worried about not getting enough good fats, the richest whole-food sources include nuts, seeds, avocados, soy, and coconuts.

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