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Is Palm Oil Vegan?

This simple answer to this is technically yes. It is a processed oil made from compressing palm fruit. It is plant based so it could, technically, be considered vegan.

But the situation is much more complicated than that. First, let’s discuss the issues surrounding the palm oil industry.

The Ugly Truth About Palm Oil:

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. But it is not only a common ingredient in foods, but exists in loads of household items like shampoo, cosmetics, detergents, toothpaste and more.

Up to 300 football fields worth of rainforest are cleared every hour to make room for palm plantations. This has resulted in a 50% decrease in the orangutan population over the past ten years due to habitat destruction.

Another issue is that palm oil producers are often clearing peat forests, which are heavy storers of carbon dioxide. Clearing these forests can release massive amounts of CO2 contributing to climate change.

The palm oil industry is also listed in the top 4 worst industries for forced child labor according to the US Department of Labor.

When you boil it down, palm oil is an eco-disaster. So, as responsible vegans and/or environmentalists/decent humans, we should immediately boycott the stuff, right? That’s what I thought at first. But unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.

Why shouldn’t we boycott palm oil?

1) It might be impossible: According to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo there are at least 48 different names for palm oil and its derivatives, making it almost impossible to know for certain if a product contains palm oil. Even if you memorized all these names, palm oil derivatives are often used in products and items that may not include an ingredient list. Even if you really did your homework and committed to boycotting palm oil, you might be doing more harm than good.

2) Boycotting Palm Oil might be worst for the planet: Oil palms produce about 10 times more oil per acre than any other oil crop. If a large enough number of people boycott it, it may only shift habitat destruction to a different area to produce other oils. Because of the difference in production amounts, replacing palm oil with other oils may actually increase forest clearance and habitat destruction, just in different geographic locations.

3) Boycotting Palm Oil might also cause unspeakable financial hardship on developing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, whose economies are heavily dependent on the industry.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. They certify members as producers of sustainable palm oil. You might think this is an easy solution. We can just make sure the products we buy are RSPO certified. Unfortunately, RSPO standards allow growers to plant on peatlands and clear “secondary forests.” Planting on carbon rich peatlands is 10X more detrimental to the environment than planting on mineral soil. For these and other reasons, many environmentalists feel that the RSPO certification is not enough to ensure palm oil production is sustainable or responsible.

What if we stop eating ALL OIL!?!?

I hear you WFPB people in the back! Reducing your overall oil consumption might seem like a step in the right direction. However, palm oil is in so many non-food products, that even if you completely eliminated all oil from you diet, you would likely still be using palm oil in many, everyday products. It is also true that eliminating oil entirely from one’s diet is not easily done, and it is unlikely that enough people could commit to this extreme shift to make a big difference to the industry as a whole.

This is all extremely disheartening and confusing. I know. I’ve been up to my neck in the research all week. Here’s a few things you can ACTUALLY do to help combat habitat destruction.

1) Check the WWF scorecard for brands and products you use: The score card judges companies on more than just the RSPO certification, but on whether they have committed to going 100% to certified sustainable palm oil, on whether they are deforestation free, and whether their efforts apply to just the listed company or their entire corporate group, among other things. Check the scorecard at https://palmoilscorecard.panda.org.

2) Download the sustainable palm oil shopping app from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. This allows you to barcode scan items and see if they are rated excellent, good, or needs improvement. Products are color coded for easy use. The app also has information on the palm oil crisis and FAQs as well as a sample letters you can use to help continue pushing companies to move toward going to 100% physically certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO).

3) Another way you can help is to try using the most minimally processed and locally sourced products that you can reasonably use. Remember that every little step helps! Try not to beat yourself up for not being 100% perfect.

4) Keep pushing the RSPO to hold companies accountable and set a higher standard for sustainable palm oil production. Read. Research. Share what you find with others. Knowledge is power.

This week of research was truly like a roller coaster. I learned so much and was really surprised to find that my conclusions changed from the time I decided to write this piece to the time I had finished it. I hope it helps you on your journey.


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