With this series we’ll try to demolish the wall of misconceptions which separates people from the truth. Articles of the series will cover internationally relevant topics. First, we’ll take a look at deforestation and the palm oil industry. Written by Noémi Szabó.

Due to the establishment of palm oil plantations, 20 hectares of rainforest disappear from the Earth each day, according to researchers. Deforestation has left less than 10% of Borneo’s rainforests. In 2013, 55 million tons of palm oil has been used globally, almost four times as much as twenty years before.

Misconception #1: buying palm oil free products is an effective way to fight palm oil cultivation and the resulting deforestation.

Source: flickr.com

The truth: this isn’t effective, since palm oil is irreplaceable for multiple reasons: on one hand, it can be found in plenty of products (like useful biodiesel), on the other hand, it has up to nine times the oil content per unit area of land as any other potential substitute plants.

“Oil palms produce 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on under 10% of the land allocated to oil crops.”

What is palm oil anyway, and what’s it used for?

Oil palm comes from West Africa, and it’s being grown on vast plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia. It’s a very important raw material for the food and cosmetics industry. Palm oil is derived from the mesocarp, and palm kernel oil is derived from the kernel. The mesocarp and the kernel contain 60-70% fat.

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world due to its versatility. In addition to being used in food and cosmetics, it’s also used for the production of biodiesel (demand for which is ever increasing worldwide), and as animal feed as well. All this because it meets requirements like not dripping or running, not being too hard and being easy to spread. In addition, it’s cheap and natural.

What’s palm oil used for?
– shampoo: cleaning, hydrating effect,
– soap: helps remove contaminants,
– lipstick: prevents clotting, solves coloring agents well,
– chocolate: provides a smooth, shiny texture,
– hazelnut spread: helps achieve proper consistency,
– pastries: used as shortening,
– biscuits: fillings don’t melt or crumble,
– dairy desserts: pleasant, creamy consistency.

In the 1970s, worries about trans fats and the increasing demand for biodiesel accelerated the burning of jungles to make room for oil palm plantations. Oil palm can be best cultivated in tropical areas, and it represents an economic opportunity for developing countries, which is why large rainforest areas are being destroyed in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example. With this, local residents get the opportunity to work and to earn, but animals in the forest die or get injured as a result of fires, and survivors must find habitat elsewhere. Orangutans, Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and elephants all suffer from the spreading of oil palm cultivation.

Source: flickr.com

Can palm oil be substituted?

It would probably be too much of an effort to make it happen in the near future. Just think about it: it creates a lot of jobs, it boosts the economy of developing countries, and its versatility of use makes it difficult to replace. We should therefore strive to develop (fortunately, the work has already started) a more responsible cultivation, one that is sustainable and helps stop deforestation. A certificate already exists (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – RSPO), created by WWF and several big producers and customers. Certified companies do not destroy “old-growth forests and areas with great biodiversity (e.g. habitats of endangered species) and fragile ecosystems”. Additionally, they undertake to pay at least minimum wage to their workers, to minimize soil erosion, and to protect water resources.

Does it make sense to buy palm oil free products?

By not buying products that contain palm oil or its components (sodium lauryl sulphate, stearic acid), we can encourage the industry to come up with an alternative. I think that the chances for this (realistically) are quite slim, but by using products of RSPO-certified companies, we more effectively promote spreading of the regulation, and growers will realize that it makes sense to comply with it.

Source: rspo.org

What are the consequences of deforestation? (not in order of importance)

1.Air pollution

On one hand, clear cutting of forests removes these wonderful “air cleaning” systems (as trees absorb carbon dioxide). On the other hand, burning of forests release previously absorbed gases back into the atmosphere, and pollute the environment with soot and ash. Additionally, significant amounts of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by burning peat, as peat is an important consumer of CO2 as well.

20 percent of global emission (emission meaning air pollution in this case) can be traced back to deforestation.

2. Disappearance of old-growth forests

Reforestation will not solve the problems of deforestation at least for several long decades, since this is how much time it takes for the trees to reach a certain height.

“An old-growth forest — also termed primary forest or late seral forest — is a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibits unique ecological features and might be classified as a climax community. Old-growth features include diverse tree-related structures that provide diverse wildlife habitat that increases the biodiversity of the forested ecosystem.”

3. Degradation of natural habitat

In recent years, the number of endangered and critically endangered species has been a recurring topic. One of the reasons for this is deforestation, as it destroys habitats, and animals need to find new areas to live, provided they survive the fires unharmed or with minor injuries.

4. Forest fires

The cause of forest fires is not only human activity but natural reasons as well, like lightning. But droughts, which are becoming more and more frequent and powerful due to global warming, weaken and dry out trees, making fires spread quicker and more difficult to extinguish.

In addition, bark beetles, reproducing faster due to the ever-warmer summers, also decimate trees. Originally, bark beetles played a useful role in the forests’ ecosystem by attacking weakened, old trees, helping younger trees grow.

5. Disruption of the water cycle

This is the result when significantly less trees take up water through their roots to transpire it to the atmosphere.

6. Soil erosion

Dreary soil erodes easily. It will, for example, quickly lose its nutrients to water, creating degraded soil; and landslides can occur during times of heavy rains.

You can read part 2 here.

Source of data in the speech bubbles: here, here, here, here and here.

Sources: here, here, here, here, here, March 2019 issue of National Geographic

Source of featured image: pxhere.com

Translated by Ádám Hittaller

10050cookie-checkMisconceptions Series – 1.