Palm oil is used in almost everything, from bath products to food and even fuel. The BBC reports that palm oil is in 50 per cent of consumer products, excluding industrial applications. Why? It’s because palm trees are easy to grow and highly profitable for farmers, even in difficult soils.
However, palm oil crops are not always sustainable and the industry is facing scrutiny from activists and consumers, who have blamed its production for forest loss, the potential extinction of wild animals, fires and worker exploitation.
The rapid expansion of plantations is causing massive deforestation, particularly in Asia, where it fuels the destruction of wildlife habitats such as the orangutans.
Unfortunately, this versatile ingredient has become so ubiquitous, and with prices so low compared with other oil crops, finding sustainable alternatives can be challenging. That said, some viable options do exist…
Sustainable alternatives to palm oil: do they exist?
Why makes palm oil so popular?
Palm oil’s omnipresence is partly due to its unique chemistry. Taken from the seeds of the West African oil palm, its colourless and odourless composition makes it a universal food additive.
In addition, its high melting point and high saturated fat content make it an ideal ingredient for creams and confectionaries. Other vegetable oils require to be partially hydrogenated – a process where hydrogen atoms are added to fat molecules – to achieve the same consistency but result in less healthy trans-fats.
Other advantages of palm oil are its resistance to spoilage and the long shelf life it bestows on products. It can also be burned for fuel, and the palm kernels left after processing can be crushed to make concrete.
The problems with palm oil
Numerous articles discuss why palm oil is bad for the environment, but the main gist is that growing palm oil groves lead to deforestation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. The two nations alone have a massive 13 million hectares of palm oil plantations.
And with deforestation comes the destruction of habitats, primarily those of orangutans living in Southeast Asia. Even national parks have been severely impacted. Forty-three per cent of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra – established to provide a habitat for the endangered Sumatran Tiger – has now been overrun with illegal palm oil plantings, reports WWF.
Growing palm oil groves also causes air pollution because existing forests are burned to clear the area, leading to soil erosion. A palm oil mill also generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Immediate release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people.
Sustainable alternatives to palm oil
Canola and sunflower seed oil
One of the most popular replacements for palm are canola and sunflower seed oils. However, while they don’t have the same environmental impact in terms of deforestation, these crops still require a lot of land and water to produce. And they take longer to grow.
Heterotrophic algal oil
A recent innovation by researchers from Singapore is something called Heterotrophic algal oil. This oil is grown from dense-celled algae called chlorella. Compared to other oils, it requires less growing space but also has a drawback. The algae’s food, sugar, is unsustainable. The algae need a lot of sugar to grow, and only 4 per cent of the world’s sugar cane plantations are considered sustainable.
The Pulitzer Center claims that the best alternative for palm oil is coconut oil. It has been proven to be equally affordable and has similar qualities – if not more – than palm oil, as it also has health benefits. It also grows pretty quickly. However, coconut trees are limited to tropical locations, and the same amount of land would have to be used for growing if it were to replace palm oil groves.
‘No such thing as sustainable palm oil’
Several corporations have been popping up claiming to produce “sustainable” palm oil, accredited and recognised by the non-profit organisation RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), but these claims have drawn criticism.
Some consumers have noted that RSPO does not correctly audit the companies, has a poor implementation of penalties, enables greenwashing and is influenced by personal objectives.
“There is no such thing as sustainable palm oil,” said Salsabila Khairunnisa, 17, a high school student who co-founded the Indonesian youth-led movement Jaga Rimba (“Save the Forest”).
“The thing to criticise is how these palm oil companies work. They can play their tactics to avoid recognising environmental violations,” Khairunnisa told Reuters.
Non-profit movement Greenpeace claims the RSPO is “as much use as a chocolate teapot” primarily due to its slow action to penalise members who continue to contribute to deforestation.
A study found that accredited palm oil groves had replaced habitats of endangered species in the tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra over the past few decades.
While there are several alternatives for palm oil, researchers at the University of Bath’s Centre for Integrated Bioprocessing Research (CIBR) say they are not economically and environmentally viable at scale.
The research team studied alternatives to palm that could be used in food manufacturing and concluded that palm oil is “challenging” to replace in formulations as its composition is uniquely versatile and is cheaper to produce compared to other vegetable oils.
“Large scale replacement with alternative crop oils such as sunflower, rapeseed, or exotic oils like coconut and shea butter also presents significant sustainability and technical challenges,” explained Dr Parson, lead researcher of the study.
“The only viable large-scale direct replacements are single cell oils from algae or yeast.”
- Recommended reading: How palm oil became the world’s most hated, most used fat source