Palm oil is destroying the rainforests – and it’s in everything.

Palm oil. The most common form of vegetable oil. Found in everything from margarine to biscuits to soap. Some statistics suggest that palm oil is in as many as 50% of all foods, cosmetics and cleaning products that we buy. Palm oil has become much more widely used in food in recent years, due to regulations on labelling food that have led to a move away from using trans fats. Palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, and rainforests are destroyed at the equivalent rate of 300 football pitches an hour.

Producing palm oil is very profitable, as the trees give a high yield of oil. This has led to complete deforestation in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia in particular, in order to plant acres of oil palm trees. This monoculture of one species of plant is highly destructive to the habitat of the orangutan in particular, both species of which are already endangered – the Sumatran orangutan is listed as critically endangered.

In response to concerns about the oil palm industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. Corporations who are members of the RSPO are allowed to label their products as using ‘sustainable’ palm oil. The RSPO has been widely criticised, particularly because its members are allowed to clear cut pristine forest in order to grow oil palm trees, whilst still labelling their products as sustainable. As well as issues over the destruction of tropical rainforest for new oil palm plantations and the burning and draining of large areas of peat swamp forest, and the impact of this on the orangutan population, there have also been allegations of forced labour and child labour made against RSPO members.

Friends of the Earth International have labelled the RSPO certification of sustainability which its members are allowed to use to label their products as “totally misleading”, and have stated that they “[do] not regard the RSPO as a credible certification process”.

Greenpeace have also stated: “many RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent. On top of this, the RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry.”

Given the breadth of products which palm oil is in, it is extremely difficult to avoid. Unfortunately, here is no legal requirement in the UK for products to identify palm oil on the label. This means that it is usually hidden under the label of vegetable oil or vegetable fat – although there are over thirty other names for palm oil. It is possible to boycott palm oil however, if you know what you are looking for. Most pre-packaged snack foods from companies such as Nestle and Unilever contain palm oil. If a product has a saturated fat content of over 40% of its total fat content, then it almost definitely contains palm oil.

Crucially, if a product contains oil which is not palm oil, it will almost always say so – palm oil is the cheapest of vegetable oils, so any company which is not using it is going to want to point this out to the consumer! This means that if you read the label and it says simply ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’, then it is almost definitely palm oil.