It’s a great relief for many new vegans when they discover Oreos are, in fact, vegan! I may not be able to have a cheese pizza, but at least I can have my favorite cookies. Or so we thought. The problem is a lot of vegan products contain palm oil, which is an incredibly polarising issue for veganism. Some feel palm oil is vegan, others feel palm oil is not vegan for several reasons, namely, deforestation and climate change. For me then, the real question is “why is palm oil not vegan”, given it is a plant-based product. We will, therefore, establish what about palm oil is so controversial and whether we can continue munching Oreos!
In a Nutshell: Pros and Cons of Palm Oil
- High yields per hectare.
- Useful vegan ingredient for keeping food solid at room temperature.
- Source of income for millions of people in poorer parts of the world.
- RSPO certification leading the way in the sustainable growth of palm-oil.
- Deforestation leads to the death of endangered animals and loss of habitat.
- High Co2 emissions in the growth of palm oil.
- Sustainable palm oil labels may be inaccurate or misleading.
What is Palm Oil?
We derive palm oil from palm trees and there are 2 varieties:
- Crude palm oil, which comes from the flesh,
- Kernel palm oil, made from pressing the stone in the middle of the flesh.
Palm trees are originally native to Africa. Nowadays, however, the vast majority of the global crop is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Benefits of Palm Oil
The main appeal of palm oil is its versatility. It has a long shelf life, retains some of its solidity at room temperature, and has a high smoke point for frying.
In addition, it also serves as a useful biofuel. The waste fibers can also be fed to animals or to produce paper products and fertilizer.
Another positive property of palm oil is its incredibly high crop yield. That is, how much oil you can produce per hectare of land. Palm tree fruit is a whopping 50% oil and is harvested year-round. Not only this, but palm oil produces a lot more oil per hectare of land than other kinds of oil. A good yield can produce up to 4 tonnes of oil a year. This is 10x more than soybean oil, which is commonly used here in the UK under the guise of “vegetable oil”.
To recap the benefits of palm oil:
- Semi-solid at room temperature
- Very high crop yields per hectare
- Prolongs shelf life of products
- A high smoke point in cooking
- Harvested 12 months a year
- Neutral taste
The main issue involved in the production of palm oil is deforestation. In order to keep up with global demand, growers are encroaching more and more into rainforests. This involves clearing large areas with machinery for palm trees to grow.
Such methods result in a lot of animal deaths and habitat loss for animals like elephants, rhinos, tigers, and Orangutans. And we’re not just talking about a few animals dying or having to relocate. One studyhttps://www.cell.com/current-biology/comments/S0960-9822(18)30086-1 estimates that since 1999, over 100,000 Bornean orangutans’ lives were lost due to the pursuit of various natural resources, including palm oil.
Palm Oil and Climate Change
Another often overlooked issue with palm oil is that it is at least 1.5x times worsehttps://gro-intelligence.com/insights/articles/palm-oil-production-and-demand than other oils in regard to carbon emissions. This is primarily due to water demands, transportation, and the removal of forests which act as carbon sinks. With environmental issues being a key motivation for a lot of vegans, this seems especially pertinent.
Avoiding Palm Oil
For vegans the decision to avoid palm oil is tricky for 2 reasons:
- Palm oil is incredibly prevalent in a lot of foods.
- Palm oil is a very productive use of land and switching to a different kind of crop could lead to more land use, and therefore more animal suffering and environmental issues.
In the past, it has been difficult to avoid palm oil. However, if you live in the EU manufacturers now have to to label their use of palm oilhttps://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32011R1169. This means that for those who wish to avoid such products it is a lot easier to do so. So avoidance of palm oil is at least easier now than before for those of us in European countries. For our U.S. friends and elsewhere, it is still very tricky.
But do we want to avoid palm oil? The amount of palm oil per hectare greatly surpasses that of other oils. If everyone decided to boycott palm oil, there’s a risk of more land usage, more water usage, and more displacement and harm to animals that accidentally fall victim to the harvesting and growing.
Boycotting Palm Oil
And this sentiment is shared by quite a few influential bodies, including the Orangutan-SOS organization which seeks to protect the endangered species:
“Whilst we appreciate that individuals may wish to distance themselves from the threat the industry poses to orangutans and their habitat, we do not believe that boycotting palm oil is the solution. It is the most productive oil crop in the world, so much more land would need to be sacrificed if companies switched to using an alternative…In addition, over 4.5 million people in Indonesia currently rely on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income. All agriculture has a footprint, and palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palms do not need to be grown at the expense of biodiverse forests – we need to demand an end to deforestation for palm oil in order to safeguard orangutans, and the precious rainforests they inhabit.”https://www.orangutans-sos.org/take-action/learn/palm-oil/
The main takeaway here is that palm oil isn’t necessarily exploitative and, given there isn’t necessarily a victim involved, palm oil may be the lesser of a few evils here.
A quick side point, while palm oil can only be grown in the southern hemisphere, other oils can be grown in many regions and climates. A downside of palm oil is its geographical limitation, which unfortunately coincides with regions with a lot of endangered species. For vegans, all animal life is respected and harm to them is avoided. To the non-vegan, however, the concern lies more heavily with the endangered orangutans and tigers than field mice, deers, and rabbits. This can be construed as speciesism but can also be seen as a pragmatic concern for animals that are endangered over those that are not.
Is Sustainable Palm Oil Vegan?
Is palm oil really the lesser evil given a growing global demand for plant oils?
Well, the question isn’t really “is palm oil vegan?” because it quite clearly is. The real issue is whether it is ethical to grow and consume in general. And there’s no reason why it can’t be, in principle, it just often isn’t so in practice.
And this is the really thorny bit because we are often told to look out for the RSPO label to ensure the palm oil has been grown responsibly. This label is meant to indicate the palm oil used in a product is “sustainably produced”. This is similar to the red tractor label or a “free-range” sticker we see in Britain. And, just like those labels used by the animal agricultural industry, we should really question whether they only serve to make us feel better. Purchasing something we may have some moral reservation against buying, otherwise known as greenwashing.
Palm oil and Greenwashing
The RSPO states it “has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which …can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.”
And this sounds great but many claim the RSPO certification is misleading and there are “tricks” to getting certification. Can we trust RSPO certification? A study lead by the researcher Roberto Gatti found that deforestation was actually increasing faster in areas certified as “sustainable”. His advice is to consider our use of palm oil and question why we have become so reliant on it and whether we really need the products that use it. “We lived for many centuries without palm oil. We can certainly do it again.” (source).
Should vegans avoid palm oil?
The trouble is palm oil is used in nearly everything. It is an incredibly popular ingredient. By avoiding palm fat you are doubling down on the difficulty involved in seeking vegan food. By boycotting palm oil, the vegan community could also be dissuading companies from pushing out new vegan alternatives to products.
It’s possible setting the standards of “ethical food” too high we cause less people to choose veganism and plant based diets. It could be that pushing for higher standards and sustainability while conscientiously consuming palm oil could result in less animal suffering long term if we were to do some moral calculus.
But this, of course, is pragmatic and consequentialist. If we are speaking in terms of moral actions and principles, consuming palm oil supports an industry that scars the environment, kills endangered species and has questionable employment standards.
3 Options For Vegans
So as I see it there are 3 routes a vegan or plant-based eater can take at this point with the full knowledge that palm oil is a controversial and messy subject morally speaking.
- Boycott palm oil
Given the full facts, knowing the destruction and harm palm oil production is causing right now, avoid palm oil and products that contain it. Encourage the development of alternatives and hope/force the world to change its current obsession with palm oil.
- Limit your consumption of palm oil
Understand that modern palm oil farming is controversial and not entirely aligned with the vegan philosophy but believe it can be. Use apps such as CodeCheck in conjunction with the WWF’s palm oil scorecard to make a considered choice on whether you want to support that company’s choice of palm oil supplier. In addition, the vegan who supports this view should encourage and help promote the RSPO and other organizations attempting to regulate the growth of palm oil for the better.
- Continue eating palm oil indiscriminately
For some though, veganism is enough of a sacrifice and moral concern can only extend so far until it becomes strained. For these vegans, it’s not an animal product, so it’s fair game.
The issue is immensely complicated and I don’t believe I’ve made coming to conclusions any clearer here. What I hope I have done, however, is demonstrate that palm oil is yet another grey area that vegans should be aware of, like Oysters and Dogs.
No one can really tell you if palm oil is vegan or not. Veganism isn’t a dogma and this isn’t a cult. You have to decide for yourself, justify your reasons, and draw your own line in the sand.