Palm Oil: In Pursuit of Sustainability

bunches of palm fruit

So far today, I have brushed my teeth, scrubbed with a bar of soap, washed and conditioned my hair, applied foundation to my face and put on lipstick. It’s 7:00am and already I have used seven products that contain palm oil. By the end of the day after feeding my dogs, running the laundry and dishwasher and enjoying a much-deserved bowl of ice cream, I will add several more.

Until recently, I had no idea that these products I use on a daily basis are associated with habitat and forest destruction.  What is behind palm oil and is there anything I can do about this?

image: IUCN Oil Palm Task Force/World Economic Forum

What exactly is Palm oil? 

In its raw form, Palm oil is a red-colored vegetable oil harvested from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The fruit is the size of a small plum and grows in large bunches weighing 20-50 pounds. The tree bears fruit for about 25 years and is grown in the tropics. Humans have eaten palm oil for thousands of years and almost everyone in Africa and Asia relies on palm oil as a staple food for everyday cooking.

Photos: clockwise – oil palm plantation; oil palm tree; harvesting, the fruit and kernel.

Palm oil is a very versatile product

Palm oil is one of the most versatile products in the world. Among many attributes, it helps soaps produce bubbles and gives it cleaning power, allows lipstick to stay smooth and creamy, preserves the crisp in crackers and is a good source of fiber and minerals for my dogs.

Oil is extracted from both the fleshy part of the fruit as well as the seed (the kernel). Both sources can be fractionated, distilled or hydrogenated many different ways for use in the food and consumer products industries.

There are many names for palm oil, making it difficult for consumers to identify in products. While some of these ingredient names are straightforward, like Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, other names are less obvious, like Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. The World Wildlife Fund provides a good list of other names for palm oil.

Palm oil lifts millions out of poverty

Palm oil is produced in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but Malaysia and Indonesia produce the bulk (85%) of world palm production.

Almost half of the palm oil produced today comes from smallholder farms. To these farmers and their families, palm offers a better life. For example, in Sabah, a state in Malaysia, the “palm oil boom has meant paved roads, better schools, and satellite television. In the state’s capital, gleaming new shopping malls feature Western and Asian luxury brands.”

Palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Mongabay

Palm oil is a very efficient crop

Aside from producing two oils, oil palm is a very efficient crop in terms of land use and yield. It is harvested throughout the year and produces more oil per hectare on much less land when compared to other crops such as sunflower, soybean or rapeseed.

palm oil is an efficient crop

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

Because of these benefits, the global demand for palm oil continues to grow.  Palm oil production has more than tripled during the past two decades and it represents over one-third (37%) of the major vegetable oils produced in the world.

Palm highlights a challenge between a beneficial oil that lifts people out of poverty, but if grown without boundaries, it can encourage deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and poor working conditions.

But boycotting or banning products that contain palm oil won’t solve the problem of deforestation, nor will it improve the livelihoods of farmers or the economies of developing countries.

The solution lies in farming and producing palm oil sustainably so that we can take care of the planet and people.

The frameworks for sustainable production

The overarching environmental global frameworks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb deforestation are set up in the Paris Climate Agreement and the New York Declaration on Forests. Human rights are guided by the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Certification schemes provide criteria to produce sustainable palm oil. The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was initiated in 2004 and brings together representatives from across the palm oil sector.  Mandates include fair working conditions, protecting land rights of local people, inhibiting the clearing of primary forest, protecting wildlife, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing industrial pollution.

Today RSPO reports that 19% of the world’s palm oil supply is sustainably sourced and produced with the guiding principles to protect Prosperity, People, and Planet.

Malaysia, which produces nearly half of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil, has developed its own certification standards in concert with RSPO’s foundation, but to support local needs.

NGOs raise awareness, companies respond

Over the past 20 years, the efforts of responsible environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Foundation and Rainforest Alliance have played a very important role in bringing people’s attention to the negative impacts of palm oil production.

The work of these groups, as well as others like The Earthworm Foundation (formerly The Forest Trust), have successfully partnered with companies that buy, sell, invest or trade palm oil to invest in sustainable palm production. These initiatives have included educating farmers on efficient farming practices, providing higher yielding/less input-intensive varieties of palm, innovative land-use techniques, as well as improving worker and community life.

Source: Center for International Forestry Research

Large producers like Cargill or buyers like L’Oréal, Nestlé, Unilever or McDonald’s are putting forth serious efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil. These companies and many more realize that to keep on producing products in a world with limited resources, they need sustainable and transparent supply chains for their raw materials. They also realize that negative publicity can quickly put their brands’ reputations at risk.

Satellite technology is one of the new tools being deployed to help palm oil producers, traders and buyers track deforestation and assist them in their sustainable efforts. Starling, Global Forest Watch, and even NASA monitor land cover changes in real time, and with this information companies can pinpoint offenders accurately and move quickly to address deforestation events.

There are still challenges

But still, there are challenges to sustainable production. Palm oil from different sources is mixed together at various stages of the production cycle, making traceability difficult. Additionally, there are thousands of people, cultures, governments, and companies involved in the palm oil supply chain, from small farmers to oil palm plantations to processors, traders and distributors, retailers and consumers.

According to Scott Poynton, founder of the Forest Trust, “every agricultural crop in the world has a footprint.” Scott and other industry experts believe it is possible to protect forests, endangered species, and indigenous peoples while producing palm oil sustainably. It takes all stakeholders to have the conversation to keep their commitment.

Source: International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN)

What you can do – use products that use sustainably produced palm oil

Boycotting palm oil is not the solution. That would mean replacing it with less efficient crops with greater potential for environmental damage. It makes more sense to look for sustainably sourced products when you can.  Rainforest Alliance Certified™ producers meet standards that require environmental, social, and economic sustainability. And the World Wildlife Fund maintains a palm oil scorecard for companies and brands.

You can also go to the manufacturer’s website of the product you are using and search for their sustainability outlines. For example, I use Dove soap, and Unilever happens to be one of the largest buyers of palm in the world and is pushing for a visible, traceable supply of palm oil.

Is Glyphosate Safe?

glyphosate - roundUp

At my home, we struggle with an ongoing battle against goutweed— a Hydra Lernaia of the invasive weed world. If you pull or cut this weed, it will only sprout more roots underground as a survival response. We researched and spoke with weed experts and ended up turning to Roundup, a glyphosate product, to get rid of it. And after three applications this past spring, the weed was finally gone.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, we have researched and written about glyphosate before and concluded it safe for use as directed. But with the enormous judgment against Monsanto, in California last month, have things changed?

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide – meaning it kills anything green and growing that it is sprayed on. It is the active ingredient in Roundup®, among other herbicides, and is marketed to homeowners and farmers to kill weeds in lawns, crop fields, vineyards, and orchards. Other major users are golf course owners who use glyphosate to keep the greens and fairways pristine and the U.S. Forest Services – for forest management.

Glyphosate is also used in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant seeds for corn, soy, and cotton. So, for example, a farmer can plant Roundup-ready soybeans in the early spring, then spray the field with glyphosate for weed control and not kill the soybean seedlings.

Why do farmers use glyphosate?

Weeds compete with crops for nutrients, water, and sunlight and some even release toxic chemicals through their roots that directly harm crops. Controlling weeds with herbicides like glyphosate is a critical part of field management for farmers to achieve profitable yields. This also affects consumers in that higher yields translate into more plentiful and affordable food.

Additionally, farmers practicing no-till farming may use glyphosate to clear their fields for planting. In this case, farmers use herbicides to suppress weeds instead of tilling their field to rip them out. Reduced tillage means lower fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions from not firing up the tractor a countless number of times. It also means more decomposing matter in the soil which creates a healthy soil. Healthy soil creates strong plants, retains water, and reduces runoff and erosion.

Here is a great video produced by Know Ideas Media explaining why farmers use glyphosate.

How does glyphosate work?

Glyphosate inhibits the activity of an enzyme, called EPSP synthase, which is essential to plant growth. EPSP synthase is not found in humans or animals, and when applied to growing weeds,  just stops them in their tracks.

Once absorbed by a plant, glyphosate travels to the roots, where it is broken down naturally by bacteria and other organisms living in the soil.

How much glyphosate does the average farmer use?

Brian Scott is a soybean, corn and wheat farmer who manages 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. In this YouTube video, he demonstrates that the amount of glyphosate applied to his crops is less than 2 soda cans for every acre of land. Canadian farmer Jake Leguee puts in it another way:

“Here’s the thing about spraying a chemical like glyphosate. An acre of land is 43,560 square feet, which is a little smaller than an American football field. On that acre, 360 grams of glyphosate active ingredient is sprayed. Put another way: 2 cans of beer of glyphosate sprayed over an area almost the size of a football field. That’s 0.015 mL of beer on each square foot – and that includes the solution the glyphosate active ingredient is suspended in. That is an incredibly low concentration. A standard “drop” of water is 0.05 mL. That’s less than a third of a drop of water!”

Is glyphosate safe to use?

The science says yes. Pesticides used on conventional and organic crops are highly regulated and undergo rigorous scientific evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is through this process that pesticides are safe when used according to the product label. In the case of glyphosate, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and regulatory authorities throughout the world have reaffirmed that glyphosate is safe to use as directed and does not cause cancer.

As farmer Jake Leguee says, “…it has absolutely been the single greatest invention in agricultural history. And it is unequivocally, fantastically safe. It is one of the lowest toxicity herbicides we use on our farm. It is less toxic than alcohol. Less toxic than caffeine. “

What about the findings of glyphosate residues in our food?

Whether farmed conventionally or organically, trace amounts of pesticide residues can find their way into our food system. The question is: how much residue is too much? The answer is: to consume the amount that is too much requires you to eat many, many portions, every day, for the rest of your life!

To understand how much is too much, we need to understand the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).  ADI is a measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drinking water that can be ingested on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. The ADI is set with a large margin of safety, usually 100 times the maximum effect seen in the laboratory. The European Union has set an ADI for glyphosate at 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The U.S. EPA figures are 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Cheerios™ by General Mills and Old Fashioned Oats by Quaker® Oats were among the favorite consumer products recently tested for glyphosate residue by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group has a history of presenting (or misrepresenting) data in a manner that causes unnecessary fear.

In this household, Cheerios™ was a staple breakfast item in this household during my children’s younger years. I wondered about EWG’s claim that I poisoned my kids.

In the examples below, we use the more conservative European Union Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate (0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day).

The science says… The highest level of glyphosate found in the EWG report for Cheerios (serving of 28 grams), was 0.53mg/kg. The highest level of glyphosate found in Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats (serving of 40 grams) was 1.3 mg/kg.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time, released data in October 2018. In milk and eggs, none was detected, according to the agency. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the EPA.

What about the lawsuit against Monsanto?

The California jury ruled based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public – it did not link glyphosate with cancer. Monsanto maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer. Decades of scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use. (If you would like to read more about this case, read here.)

What are the herbicide alternatives?

First introduced in the mid-1970s, glyphosate has low toxicity to humans and animals and decomposes in the soil. While there are certainly other chemicals that farmers use, glyphosate replaced a class of much more dangerous herbicides and is considered the safest and most environmentally friendly herbicide on the market today.