Is Palm Oil Vegan?

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Palm oil is a contentious issue for vegans, as its cultivation has led to the destruction of vast rainforests and the loss of wildlife, including endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran elephants. But is palm oil truly vegan? In this article, we will explore the complexities of palm oil production and its impact on the environment and wildlife.

Where Does Palm Oil Come From?

Palm oil is a highly versatile plant-based ingredient extracted from the fruit pulp of oil palm trees. It is known for its high yield, producing between six to 10 times more oil per acre than soya crops, making it the world’s most efficient and cost-effective vegetable oil to manufacture. It finds its way into numerous household products, from cosmetics to food items, due to its versatility.

Of the total global palm oil production, 71 percent is used in the food industry, 24 percent in cosmetics, and five percent for biofuels. The demand for biofuels is rising, potentially replacing oil palm for food and cosmetics as the main driver of deforestation. So, while palm oil is technically vegan, its ethical and environmental implications are more complex.

Impact on Wildlife

One of the primary reasons vegans may avoid palm oil is its devastating impact on wildlife. To create space for oil palm plantations, southeast Asia has adopted a deforestation strategy called ‘slash and burn,’ which harms the environment and biodiversity. Species like orangutans, proboscis monkeys, elephants, rhinos, and tigers, along with various fish species, have been affected. In Borneo alone, at least 50 percent of deforestation between 2005 and 2015 was linked to oil palm development.

The plight of orangutans, in particular, has garnered attention due to distressing footage of lone orangutans clinging to trees as they are felled. The loss of natural habitat has led to all three species of orangutans being critically endangered.

In 2018, the IUCN reported that palm oil production posed a significant threat to 193 critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable species worldwide. Furthermore, estimates suggest that further oil palm expansion could affect 54 percent of all threatened mammals and 64 percent of all threatened birds globally.

Environmental Concerns

Palm oil production also raises environmental concerns. Tropical rainforests act as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowing down global warming. However, forest and peatland burning for palm oil plantations release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Air and water pollution, as well as soil erosion, are other environmental issues associated with palm oil production. For instance, fires in Indonesia in 2015 caused up to half a million respiratory infections and over 100,000 deaths across multiple countries due to the transboundary haze created by the fires.

Sustainable Palm Oil?

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to certify products that do not contribute to deforestation, climate change, or human rights abuses. However, despite over 4,000 RSPO members and around one-fifth of the world’s palm oil being certified as ‘sustainable,’ concerns about standards monitoring and enforcement have been raised. Failings in the auditing process have been highlighted in reports by environmental groups.

As it stands, it is challenging for companies to guarantee that the palm oil they use is entirely free from harm to habitats and wildlife. The rapid growth of the palm oil industry and the damage already done raise doubts about the feasibility of establishing a sustainable threshold.

Hope for the Future

One ray of hope is the potential use of palm oil waste for biofuel. Currently, as much as 90 percent of palm oil biomass is classified as waste. Researchers are exploring ways to convert this waste into biofuel using bentonite clay. This could increase the efficiency of oil palm crops without further habitat destruction.

Viable Alternatives?

While alternatives to palm oil exist, such as soya, sunflower, and rapeseed oil, shifting to these crops may require more land, potentially leading to deforestation in other regions. Palm oil, with its high yield, is challenging to replace entirely.

In conclusion, palm oil is technically suitable for a vegan diet as it is plant-derived and does not contain animal products. However, due to its significant environmental and wildlife impact, individuals may choose to avoid it. The key lies in raising public awareness and implementing effective policies to manage existing oil palm plantations more sustainably and hold irresponsible developers accountable for environmental damage.

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