Why the environment suffers when we go shopping
It burns! Once it was a smouldering conflict between nature and man; in the course of time it expanded. And what does man do? He pours oil into the fire. A very specific oil. Palm oil to be precise.
In the past, palm oil was considered ecological and was highly praised as a renewable resource. But as so often, if the throat can never be filled enough, at some point it backfires. It was no different with palm oil. The yield is high, the raw material cheap and so the demand increased rapidly. In the meantime, the days when palm oil was sustainable are long gone: palm oil is by far the cheapest and most frequently produced vegetable oil worldwide. So it is a mass product. While global palm oil production in 2002/2003 was 26.9 million tons per year, today it is 68.65 million tons.
Because the topic of palm oil is more serious and topical than ever, this blog article is dedicated to fire fighting. A few numbers will fall, but in the end you will buy differently.
Originally the oil palm comes from West Africa and came to Malaysia with the colonization. Today, approximately 85% of the world's production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
In a tropical rainforest climate, it thrives well and delights us humans with two different oils: from the pulp of the oil palm, palm oil is extracted; from the ground seeds, the fat is extracted, which is then processed into palm kernel oil (in the following, we will stick to the term palm oil for the sake of simplicity). Its oil yield per hectare is quite high in contrast to other oils and this makes it a fantastic raw material for the industry. In addition, after appropriate treatment (refined and deodorised) the oil is tasteless, odourless and colourless and has a long shelf life. Due to its high melting point, it remains solid at room temperature, but still spreadable and smooth.
But it is not only because of its properties, which are very advantageous for mass-produced goods, that industrialists are attracted to tropical oil, but also because of its low price, which is far from any competition. Palm oil can be found in every second supermarket product as a cheap additive in bulk (forumpalmoel.org/imglib/Palmoelstudie%202017_Meo_FONAP_ho. pdf), it is also burned in power plants to generate heat and electricity and used as biofuel for biodiesel and hydrogenated fuel.
In total, the EU countries import 6 million tonnes of palm oil annually; Germany alone purchases over one million tonnes of it. In 2017, Germany imported 1.12 million tonnes of palm oil directly and at least 695,000 tonnes indirectly as a component of intermediate or end products. Of this, 377,000 tonnes were exported from Germany. If the difference is applied to each individual citizen, this results in an annual consumption of 17.3 kg of palm oil per capita.
Very much palm oil is consumed, so the palm plantations are correspondingly large. Species-rich ecosystems have to make way for them - the green lung of the earth, as it was once described, is being taken away. The gigantic oil palm monocultures extend over approx. 27 million hectares of rainforest along the equator. That is three quarters of the area of Germany.
An area for which space must first be created. Practically speaking, the palm oil industry and the tropical timber industry work well together, and by selling tropical timber the investment costs for the establishment of the oil palm plantations can be financed. Once the path has been cleared, remaining residues are often burned uncontrolled, which releases a lot of CO2. The soil no longer has a root system to hold it in place and is washed away by heavy rainfall.
The palm oil lobby continues to argue with the ecology of oil palms; with a high yield, they require relatively little cultivated area (compared to other plants).
Two irrefutable facts remain: 1. oil palms grow in the rainforest areas at the equator and for the large-scale plantations the diversity of nature with its plant and animal species is destroyed. 2. it is fundamentally wrong to divide the earth into supposedly favourable cultivation areas in order to use their products globally. Actually, it is the most normal thing in the world that everyone cultivates his or her own staple foods and not at the expense of others.
And what about organic palm oil? The use of chemical fertilizers, genetic engineering and pesticides is forbidden in organic farming, yet the industry dominates the cultivation of organic palm oil through its monocultures.
In EU countries, politics and industry also work together and lobby thoroughly. Palm oil associations present apparently sustainably produced palm oil as good through greenwashing, and the German government is also involved in the Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil.
In 2008, the WWF founded the RSPO, a Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil, where 951 traders, producers, investors, banks and processors meet 40 non-profit organizations.
The aim of this alliance is to give palm oil production and sales a more sustainable face. The RSPO is not only humorous, but also resourceful. For example, the clearing of rainforests is not excluded. If a rainforest area was cleared before 2008, it can be converted into a certified oil palm plantation. Areas to be cleared after 2008 are only excluded if they are considered "particularly worthy of protection". Which area is particularly worthy of protection is decided by an expert who is commissioned and paid by the palm oil companies. Absolutely untouched forests are considered to be particularly worthy of protection. Forests in which a small, indigenous people live are already influenced by humans and may then be cleared.
The social aspects covered by the RSPO standards are general human rights - which are actually taken for granted. Climate protection is not considered in the standards. And just like the experts for the areas requiring special protection, the certifiers who check compliance with the self-imposed standards are commissioned and paid directly by the oil companies. Independent monitoring bodies are not involved. In 2008, the Swiss Palm Oil Coalition published a dossier exposing the RSPO as a label fraud. It states that the RSPO's guidelines are weak, insufficiently implemented and fail to have the desired effect because they allow the destruction of moors and forests or the use of highly toxic pesticides. The Swiss coalition is not alone in this opinion. A total of 256 human rights and environmental organizations rejected the RSPO in the same year. Ultimately, the Round Table serves the purpose of greenwashing and thus becomes the legitimation for politics and industry to meet the (self-generated) increasing demand.
The oil and the people
The oil boom has developed into an oil spill that affects people in many ways. The inhabitants in the cultivation areas lose land and livelihoods; often they are threatened, imprisoned or forcibly displaced. In 2015, Spiegel Online reported about 5,000 land conflicts, which are fought out in Indonesia alone because of the palm oil industry, and some of them come to a bloody end.
People like Suku Anak Dalam (Sumatra's last forest nomads) live under plastic tarpaulins in what resembles a refugee camp or sleep in ditches. They are traumatised; there is a lack of food and water. As the fires spread to the neighbouring areas, smoke and pollutants threaten the health of the people living there; children, sick and old people are particularly at risk.
If the inhabitants are not affected by all this, it can happen that they have been lured to the plantations with empty promises to work and end up in forced labour. According to reports, thousands of children are also affected and would have to do hard labor.
And how does the oil spill affect us?
Palm oil consists of 50 % saturated fatty acids. Called "thickeners", they can also be responsible for heart disease and high cholesterol levels. Palm kernel oil even consists of 80% saturated fatty acids; this is used for glazes and caramel.
If the palm oil has been refined, it often contains high amounts of so-called fatty acid esters; they are considered carcinogenic. Both the European Food Safety Authority EFSA and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment warn against the intake of these harmful substances from palm oil.
Much of this harmful palm oil is found in chocolate or nut nougat spreads as well as in baby milk substitutes and infant food. Just as alarming as dangerous to health - your body weight in relation to the amount of harmful substances you consume is much lower than in adults.
The oil and you
Many things have to change. This concerns the cultivation of palm oil as much as our consumption. Here too, "conscious consumption" is the magic word. If palm oil were to be stubbornly and uncritically replaced by other vegetable oils, the problems would merely be shifted rather than solved. Rapeseed, soy or coconut palms are less productive, but require more land. What needs to change is the sense of responsibility - that of the industrialists and our own.
So a boycott would not be the solution. A critical examination of the issue and conscious consumption would be a first step; less ready meals and confectionery would be a second.
Since 2014, mandatory labelling of palm oil in food has been in force. It takes good will and a little effort to read the information on the packaging. The fact that palm oil is contained in half of all supermarket products means that the other half is also available - the alternatives without palm oil.
There is no clear declaration requirement for cosmetics, care or cleaning products (a little pressure from the chemical industry may have played its part). If you would like to look through the nicknames and synonyms for palm oil and palm kernel oil, this list will help you:
environmentalview.com/index. php/palmoel/deklarationen-von-palmoel/95-deklarationen-von-palmoel or you can consult the already mentioned app Codecheck (3rd blog article "All beginnings are not so difficult").
To make it easier for you to find alternatives, the next blog article will be about these and other tips. There will be a few numbers to follow, but it won't be boring and in the end you'll want to shop differently.