If like me, you have been hearing an awful lot recently about Palm Oil on Television, on the news, at school or work, know you are not alone in thinking: What is palm oil? Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil and is a super-efficient crop, meaning we can produce a lot of palm oil per area of land. The tree palm oil comes from, is an African oil palm originally from tropical forests with warm, humid climates that offer perfect growth conditions for oil palms. These are located in west and South-West Africa but were introduced to Indonesia (the world’s current leading country of palm oil production) and Malaysia in the late 19th century and the early 21st century. These trees require few pesticides or fertilizers while being grown. The destruction of these forests (deforestation) threatens biodiversity and heavily increases greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn intensifies global warming.

You can find palm oil in most supermarket products due to its properties (particularly in processed food) and the low world market price. Such items include: frozen pizzas, biscuits, margarine, body creams and soaps, make-up, candles and detergents. Even the Bank of England considered using palm oil in the new £20 polymer notes. You may be surprised to know such products include palm oil and the reason being is up until 2014 most labels (particularly food labels) did not include it as an ingredient. Many have simply put vegetable oil instead. However, as of 2014 the EU labelling laws changed so that products must specifically state if they contain palm oil. As consumers, we are largely unaware of the issues found in palm oils and how they impact our health. For example, refined palm oils contain large amounts of harmful fatty acids that are known to damage DNA and potentially cause cancers.

Palm oil is not just used in supermarket products, oh no, it is also found in biofuels which are used to fuel cars. Despite the effort now made in supermarkets to make customers more aware of palm oil, drivers in Europe who drive diesel fueled vehicles are forced or unknowingly forced to fill their cars with palm oil biodiesel. In fact, at 66 million tons annually, almost half of all imported palm oil is being used to make biodiesel for European cars and trucks.

Now, the big story you would have undoubtedly heard about recently is the chaos caused by the supermarket Iceland, who found themselves in trouble for their Christmas advert. The heartfelt advert revealed a great deal about palm oil and its catastrophic effect on the environment. Earlier this year the UK company announced it will stop using palm oil in any own brand products by late 2019, in the hope that this would help to save the environment. The company had been enlightened about the harmful effects of palm oil by campaigners from Greenpeace, who work to protect the natural world, especially as the consummation of palm oil is predicted to increase in the up-coming years. Greenpeace created the animation that Iceland had planned on using as their advert. Other supermarkets and manufacturers have stated they will only buy palm oil that has been produced in a sustainable way, so that is does not damage land. However, it is difficult to know if farmers have or have not followed the rules that surround palm oil production.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a group formed in 2003 with help from the WWF, and was founded to ensure those who work in the palm oil industry work together to improve conditions and make sure all companies work within the strict guidelines of producing palm oil.

The production of palm oil is believed to be responsible for roughly 8% of world deforestation between 1990 and 2008. Trees and plants are not the only wildlife to be destroyed during the burning and collecting of palm oil; animals that stand in the way are often killed. This results in less biodiversity as well as endangering the welfare of rare animals such as orangutans, rhinos, Borneo elephants, leopards and Sumatran tigers; putting them at the verge of extinction. 5,000 orangutans are killed a year due to deforestation and there are less than a 1000 of most species of orangutan. Now only approximately 70,000 orangutans roam South-East Asia’s forests.

Oil palm plantations currently hold reign over more than 27 million hectares of the earth’s surface. Forest fires that cleared land for oil palm productions have released high levels of carbon dioxide and black carbon (soot) into the atmosphere, contributing massively to climate change. Human settlements have also been destroyed alongside forests that have been bulldozed or torched, replaced by ‘green deserts’. Green deserts contain virtually no biodiversity over a large stretch of land equal to the size of New Zealand. Indigenous people who have inhabited areas and protected lands and forests for generations are brutally driven out so that more industrial sites that produce palm oil can be created over their homes. In Indonesia there have been more than 700 land conflicts as a result of the palm oil industry. Human right violations are everyday occurrences. However, the excuse of jobs can appear satisfactory and positive outcomes to governments. The palm oil industry offers jobs to many deprived people who live in great poverty and are keen to find work. These industries have provided millions of jobs to small farmers and help them escape poverty and earn better wages to ensure better lives for their families.

You can help the world straight away whilst living your day to day life just by simple actions that will help combat unethical palm oil trades and maintain our environment. How about cooking homemade food rather than using processed foods, or switching to using sunflower, olive, rapeseed or flaxseed oils. Simply looking at labels when purchasing items when in-store or online and quickly checking online, can tell you which ingredients a product may contain. You could even write to companies asking for them to manufacture palm oil free products or even sign petitions. You can speak out and spread the world online or to your family, friends and neighbours; or look for any local marches campaigning against the misuse of palm oils. And a classic tip we all know helps the environment…if vehicles run on biofuel, leave your car at home and walk, ride a bike or perhaps take up roller skating or very simply take public transport, even car lift sharing! If you are happy to use palm oil, then ensure that it has been produced in a sustainable way. And finally, don’t let big businesses convince you or your peers of any questionable facts about palm oil plantations they are promoting or in legal contracts with. Make sure to always do your research, especially when you are prepared to take action or voice an opinion!

This is our world, we must protect it; go crazy in a respectful and helpful manner!