To follow the oil on new paths or: How nature and research can solve our problems
What would western man be without google maps? He would probably be stuck without any orientation. As far as dealing with the earth is concerned, he behaves like this and heads for one dead end after the other; instead of orientating himself by the facts on the map. As far as palm oil is concerned, too, we have now reached a dead end from which we must now get out again. Many consumers have realised this, some are just about to do so. And what is the industry doing? It prefers to bet on money rather than on the right path. But once you're stuck, at some point it doesn't help you any more.
So what can we do if the alternatives are lacking? What we have to do, even in tricky situations:
- We come to terms with the situation.
- We do what we can.
- We hope (because in this case we have an ace up our sleeve).
Applying to the oil misery the alternatives are also rather poor. As mentioned in the last article, a complete abandonment would hardly be feasible and even if it were, the problems would reappear elsewhere. Especially the cultivation for coconut and soybean oil would require the clearing of much more rainforest areas in the tropics, which would in turn increase the greenhouse effect. No adequate substitute, therefore. Ilka Petersen, head of studies at the WWF in Berlin, also says: "Simply replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils does not solve the problems, but could even make them worse". The only way in the right direction is to make the cultivation of oil plants more environmentally and socially compatible. On the other hand, we come into play as consumers. We have to adapt our (consumption) behaviour to the situation, because less ready meals and sweets mean less consumption of palm oil.
So what to do? Let us try to balance our consumption. Since palm oil is usually also contained in animal feed, we could eat less meat. Or we could drive less by car and use more public transport or bicycle. And how do we deal with palm oil products? Think about something that you can simply leave out completely, what you need and want to continue to buy, and which products you can switch to alternatives. If we think through our buying behaviour in this way, we automatically do what we can.
There are some manufacturers who offer good alternatives. We have picked out a few of them for you as a concrete suggestion:
For chocolate and biscuits, some organic manufacturers deliberately do without palm oil. Palm oil-free alternatives for chocolate bars and bars can be found at GEPA, Rapunzel or Alnatura, for example. The chocolate butter biscuits from the latter manufacturer are also a delicious counterpart to the classic Prinzenrolle.
If it runs like clockwork
Palm oil-free spreads can be found at Rigoni di Asiago or Rapunzel. Chocolate or nut nougat creams can also be produced quite easily by yourself. Palm oil is a basic ingredient for vegan spreads and margarine. Here it is advisable to take a close look and fall back on regional, home-made products.
If it has to be quick
The main ingredients of almost all ready meals are sugar, preservatives, flavour enhancers and also palm oil - no matter whether it is frozen pizza, ready-made soup or a pan dish. You will find a quick palm oil-free meal in Alnatura's tomato soup. Even better: cook twice the amount more often and freeze some of it. Maybe you don't have time more often, but you always have a fresh meal.
well cared for
In terms of skin care, it's getting a bit more difficult with the alternatives. High-quality (but also more expensive) natural skin care products are free of palm oil, like those from Dr. Hauschka. Cheaper, vegan and also palm oil-free is the "Happyness" shower gel from Sante, which has been awarded the Natrue natural cosmetics seal. The "Speick Orgnaic 3.0" Shower Gel and the "Natural Shower Gel" care with coconut surfactants. Some things can also be made with very few ingredients, for example bath salts, hand creams or a peeling.
Aleppo soap contains basically no palm oil, just like many natural soaps. If it should be a soap from the drugstore, then Speick Natural Soap is a good choice. It also contains coconut oil instead of palm oil. Small, beautiful specialty shops and manufactories often sell palm oil-free soaps and besides that it is fun to browse.
You can find even more information and suggestions in the book "The Palm Oil Compass: Backgrounds, facts and tips for everyday life" by Frauke Fischer and Frank Nierula, published in March 2019.
What is the magic word? - Acrocomia
The best alternative is provided by nature itself, in cooperation with research. It is the Acrocomia palm (or Macauba) that makes us feel confident. It can solve many problems without sacrificing rainforests. With its 15 metres in height and fruits the size of a golf ball, the prickly plant is more like a David against Goliath in terms of the oil industry, but a rather low-maintenance David. It also grows in drier, cooler areas and on soils poorer in nutrients than the oil palm. A temperature range of 5 to 30 degrees is sufficient for it, and it is content with arable land that would already be unsuitable for soya. This means that it can also thrive in drier, subtropical regions from Argentina to Florida - and it does so very productively. When it is fully grown, it bears fruit annually for up to 70 years.
Exactly as with the fruit of the oil palm, two oils can be pressed out of the fruit of the Acrocomia palm; both from the pulp and from the kernel. The fruit of the Acrocomia palm has a wide range of applications: the oil of the pulp is suitable for soaps, for the chemical industry or even for biodiesel. The oil from the kernel, on the other hand, is ideal for food, as a pharmaceutical substance and as a base for cosmetics. The Acrocomia palm is rightly described by the University of Hohenheim as an agricultural all-rounder. Even the pressed residue, the press cake of both oils, can be used as organic fertiliser, animal feed or in the production of biogas. Even the rather thick outer shell could be used as raw material for activated carbon or fuel.
"The cultivation of the Acrocomia palm can bind CO2 in the long term and also contribute to improving opportunities and reducing risks in terms of land use and reforestation through more choices (diversification)," explains Dr. Barbara Ramsperger, Managing Director of the Tropical Centre of the University of Hohenheim.
But why aren't there heaps of Acrocomia plantations? Does it have a catch?
An apparent one perhaps, in the form of a low germination rate. Under normal circumstances, it takes up to five years for the seeds of the palm tree to germinate and another four to five years for the palm tree to bear fruit (for comparison, the oil palm delivers its fruit in two to three years). Due to its low germination rate, the Acrocomia palm protects itself from unwanted germination. This is because if the plant were to germinate prematurely, and this in the event of poor rainfall distribution, the seedling would die. Like other plants in areas with bad weather conditions, the Acrocomia palm takes measures to prevent this. This is of course good for the plant, but rather bad if it is to fulfil an agricultural purpose.
As the Acrocomia palm thus seemed to be unprofitable for cultivation for a long time, it has so far not necessarily been considered as a viable alternative to the oil palm.
The change in this respect came in 2014, provided by the University of Hohenheim in cooperation with the Catholic University of Paraguay.
Scientists from both universities found ways to make it possible to cultivate the Acrocomia palm on plantations by giving two-year-old seeds a growth-promoting treatment. In these plants germination started after about six weeks. With this step, the Acrocomia palm could push the oil palm from its throne and replace it as a high-yield oil supplier. It represents a sustainable alternative to satisfy the great need for palm oil, while leaving nature unharmed and even improving social aspects: Once Acrocomia is fully grown, it can produce high yields for decades with little effort, which also benefits smallholders.
What does the growth-promoting treatment look like in detail?
As with other palms, the fruit of Acrocomia has a hard stone skin several millimeters thick, which protects the inside of the drupe. There are three openings in the stone bowl, closed with a lid. We know this from the three "holes" of the coconut. But these lids are quite tightly connected to the rest of the stone shell. If there is enough rainfall, the connections to the stone shell become brittle due to the frequent humidity and the water gets to the seed in the stone shell. This interrupts the dormancy period of the seed, so that germination and cell division begin. The root of the seed can then break one of the lids and the seedling continues to develop.
Precisely this process has been exploited by scientists from the Universities of Hohenheim and Paraguay, who are ensuring better control of the water supply. The evaporation of the water is reduced by a cover and the plant is regularly moistened. In addition, drainage in the germination bed promotes good germination, and disease infestations can be contained. To improve the penetration of water into the seed, the seed coat is scarified. However, it must not be damaged in the process.
Germinated seeds, which develop well as young plants, are then placed in a bag with soil substrate and grown in a nursery under shade. After six to twelve months they can be planted out. The shade is gradually reduced as the plants grow older in order to accustom them to direct sunlight. The young plants are protected and grow to a large size, so that the plantations end up with high-quality plants.
Similar procedures are also common with other palms to promote germination.
This method is mainly used in Paraguay, but there are also Acrocomia plantations in Brazil, especially in Minas Gerais.
What are we waiting for? International customers and established supply chains! As there is still a lack of these, the Acrocomia palm has not yet been able to establish itself on a large scale. According to Petersen from the WWF, the quality of the oil for production still needs to be checked.
Dr. Thomas Hilger from the University of Hohenheim is also aware of the lack of demand from industry and is currently organising a meeting between scientists from South America and the University of Hohenheim to identify gaps in research. The exchange with industrial partners is also planned in order to promote discussions between industry and research.
Initial progress has also been made by INOCAS. This company is funding a project in Brazil, in which the cultivation of Acrocomia is integrated into existing oil palm cultivation areas. Additional arable land is therefore not required. This approach could be extended to the whole of Brazil in the future. Studies by INOCAS have shown that replanting half of the oil palm cultivation areas already in use could mean that more vegetable oil could be produced in Brazil alone than on all oil palm plantations worldwide.
However, until then we would do well to continue to focus on our consumption. Perhaps this will help the industry to hear the "Please turn around" more clearly and act accordingly.