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Palm oil

Palm oil is the cheapest, most widely used vegetable fat in the world. Cookies, readymade pizza, detergents, chocolate: Every fourth product in the supermarket contains the oil. Due to the explosively growing demand – especially by industrial nations – great areas of rainforest are cleared to make room for new palm oil plantations. The destruction amounts to an area the size of the Canton of Berne every year. The clearing of the rainforest and the establishment of vast monoculture plantations have negative consequences both on a local and global level: rare species of animals and plants lose their habitat, the global warming progresses, people lack clean drinking water and the protection against natural catastrophes, such as tsunamis, are not provided anymore.

PanEco’s activities concerning palm oil:

  • We inform the Swiss population and raise awareness.
  • We gather evidence and convict palm oil companies that act illegally.
  • As a member of the coalition for the exemption of palm oil in the free trade agreement between Switzerland and Indonesia/Malaysia, we advocated to the Swiss parliament to promoting Swiss vegetable fat instead of palm oil.
  • In the current exhibition in the Thurauen Nature Centre, we inspire our visitors for the biodiversity of the rainforest and invoke them to protect it and to reduce the consumption of palm oil.
  • We do research on how palm oil plantations influence the biodiversity.
  • From a pilot study we have been carrying out for several years, we found that palm oil can successfully be harvested on fallow lands.

What can I do as a consumer?

The best way to preserve the rainforest is to reduce our consumption of palm oil drastically. If you decide against «biodiesel» and consume products such as chocolate, sweets and snacks like ready-meals more consciously, 25% of the palm oil consumption could be saved.

Since the 1st of November 2016, palm oil has to be declared as an ingredient in foods in Switzerland. Palm oil is since clearly labeled and recognisable in the lists of ingredients. The problem area though remain the cosmetic and cleaning products where there is not (yet) an obligation of declaration. There are two possibilities to find out which products (especially non-food products) could contain palm oil:

  • The App «CodeCheck» shows whether the product contains palm oil by scanning the barcode on your smartphone.
  • Knowledge of the ingredients can help to identify products that contain components deriving from palm oil (such as glycerine, lauroyl, stereates).

To sum up, this means: Cook and eat fresh and seasonal products, look at the products in the supermarket and check the ingredients! If ever possible: Pick the products without palm oil.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil derives from a very productive plant that originates in Africa. It so efficient because its fruit can be harvested every year. The fruits are processed into palm oil or palm kernel oil.

In the 1990s, producers discovered the efficiency of palm oil. It is imported for the production of food, cosmetics or detergents and it is a component of fuel such as biodiesel. This results in a palm oil boom that does not only cut prices. It also fuels the market of palm oil in the Southeast of Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. The boom is continuing till this day.

Palm oil plantations are converted in monocultures on areas of rainforest. To do so, the rainforest has to make room and is cleared by legal and illegal fire-clearances.

This means a great threat to nature and the environment because the clearing of the rainforest results in natural catastrophes. What makes it worse is that palm oil could be cultivated on fallow lands as well.

Does sustainable palm oil exist?

No, there is practically no sustainable palm oil. Products that contain palm oil which is certified by the RSPO are often called sustainable. The «Roundtable of sustainable palm oil» (RSPO) is a global certification system. Around 20% of the palm oil is certified to its standards. The foundation PanEco used to be a member of the RSPO since its foundation because the underlying idea is one worth supporting. In May of 2016, we terminated our membership. Our reasons: Over the years, violations done by members were not prosecuted and had no consequences most of the time. Furthermore, the weak internal organisation and its inefficient processes were never optimised despite many years of criticism. A new rule implies that the RSPO is not to be criticised by its members. That was when PanEco could no longer support the system.

We are of the opinion that consuming RSPO-palm oil is better than buying products that contain conventional palm oil, but it is not considered to be sustainable. To preserve the rainforest, the reduction of palm oil consumption is without alternative.

Why is palm oil controversial?

The cultivation area of oil palms in Indonesia has continually increased over past 30 years from 2’300 km2 in 1981 to 90’000 km2 in 2015. This is an annual growth rate of 5% with this figure set to increase in future.

To make room for new and bigger plantations, palm oil producers cleared the rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia and drained swamps. By doing so, they created conditions for continuously recurring turf- and forest fires whose poisonous smoke killed about 100’000 people in the last year, according to estimations of current studies – 91’000 people were killed by the fires in Indonesia alone.

Another big issue is the enormous emission of greenhouse gases. The rainforest soil – especially the turf soil in the peat swamp rainforest – has been storing CO2 for thousands of years. If the forest is cleared and the soil drained, the stored CO2 escapes into the atmosphere. During the great fires in September 2016 the same amount of greenhouse gases were emitted into the atmosphere as the entire economy in the US emitted in one year.

Palm oil plantations might seem to be green and bright from the outside, but they are a disaster for the biodiversity in the surrounding area. Studies of PanEco have shown that the biodiversity of animal and plants in the plantations and in the surrounding forests decreases drastically.