How to avoid palm oil
Rainforests are being hacked down at an incredible rate to make way for palm oil plantations, but consumers can play their part in stopping this – by going palm oil free.
Approximately 80% of it is used in food products. In 2011, 50 million tonnes of the stuff was produced, with 90% of production coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia alone its expansion is destroying rainforest at a rate of 54 rugby fields every hour. Those are big, scary numbers for a problem that, in the lives of many consumers at least, remains largely invisible. Because if you try and find out if palm oil is in a food or cosmetic product, chances are that you won’t be able to.
In food, palm oil tends to fall under the broad category of ‘vegetable fat’ or ‘vegetable oil’, descriptions so vague as to be rendered almost useless. Cosmetics labels, meanwhile, are enough to send anyone’s head into a spin. While palm oil is often labelled as ‘elaeis guineensis’, it can also fall under such names as sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid and isopropyl.
If this all looks too big to tackle, take heart in the efforts of 17-yearold schoolboy Ben Dowdle. The head boy of Auckland’s Pakuranga
“We argue the only way to have a consumer campaign against palm oil is with labelling, so you can refuse a product at the point of sale” –
High School is spearheading a campaign to make palm oil labelling on products mandatory.
Dowdle was spurred to take action after attending a Sir Peter Blake Youth EnviroLeaders’ Forum at Auckland Zoo last year, where he heard various speakers detail the impact the palm oil industry was having in Sumatra and Indonesia.
“We decided to make our school palm oil-free,” says Dowdle. “We were going through the school pantry doing a palm oil audit and realised that it’s just about impossible to find out what has got palm oil in it.”
And so, in September last year, the Unmask Palm Oil campaign, which encompasses both an educational component for schools and a petition, was born. To date the campaign has captured 1500 signatures across three schools, with a target of 10,000.
“We argue the only way to have a consumer campaign against palm oil is with labelling, so you can walk through the supermarket and refuse a product at the point of sale rather than having to bring a big list with you.”
Kiwi consumers aren’t averse to putting the pressure on companies to act ethically, as evidenced by the outcry that erupted in 2009 when Cadbury announced it was using palm oil as a cheaper alternative to cocoa butter in its Dairy Milk chocolate. Public pressure was so great, Cadbury announced it was taking it out almost as quickly as it had announced it was putting it in.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which incorporates growers, food companies, NGO’s, and processors, is working towards a sustainable solution, but Auckland Zoo conservation field programmes coordinator Peter Fraser describes its current efforts as “aspirational at best”, adding that we simply don’t have the time to wait for these aspirations to become a reality.
Dowdle isn’t comforted by the efforts of the RSPO, either. Unlike the Fairtrade system, which at least employs the use of an independent third party to certify products, he likens the RSPO’s self-regulation as akin to “me marking my own exams”.
Individual campaigns targeted at government level in both Australia and New Zealand has so far yielded little by way of positive results. In 2008, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) rejected an application for the labelling of palm oil because it did not pertain to the supply, quality or safety of food.
But if utter destruction of habitats, indigenous rights and the environment isn’t enough to pique government interest, then perhaps the health effects of palm oil are.
FSANZ is currently undertaking a review of food labelling law and policy, which includes evaluating the costs and benefits of listing types of sugars, fats and vegetable oils for issues of health and safety (palm oil has a high saturated fat content).
In 2009 Cadbury announced it was using palm oil as a cheaper alternative to cocoa butter in its Dairy Milk chocolate. Public pressure was so great, Cadbury scrambled to remove it.