The great unknownOne week without palm oil
Full disclosure. I'm a little naive about palm oil. Of course I've heard about it, but I have no idea exactly what it is and what it is used for. So my task now is to find out more about the mysterious fat and to see if I can live without it.
A silver bullet
If you start to dig into the palm oil issue, you will be surprised: palm oil is everywhere. In food, you'll find it in chocolate spread as well as in pretzels, soup, biscuits, muesli or margarine.
Cosmetics are also full of it. And candles. The oil's chemical properties make it even ideal for the production of surfactants, which help with dirt removal, in detergents.
And palm oil is cheap. In fact, it's the cheapest vegetable oil on the market today.
Because of that palm oil is even used in animal feed - making each piece of meat you eat, indirectly, a palm oil product. Or think of fuel: it's not necessarily rapeseed oil that is powering your car, it's palm oil too.
Global palm oil consumption rose from 14.6 million tons in 1995 to 63 million tons in 2016, and is still rising now. It is the most consumed oil in the world.
In 1970, global palm oil production was only one million tons
Only about every fourth ton of palm oil imported into Europe comes from an allegedly sustainable source.
Palm oil kills
So why should that interest me? It seems to me that palm oil is a very popular type of vegetable oil. There are also other oils. But what's the difference?
The problem lies really with the impact of oil production. Giant swathes of rainforest are cut down and turned into a monoculture. They are still green because the oil palms have green leaves, but it doesn't offer more in terms of biodiversity. Actually, the impact on ecosystems in the countries, where palm oil plantations are established, is devastating, I learn in my research. I see pictures of flattened earth, where lush, green rainforests once stood. Harmful pesticides are also used. Everything is done for profit.
Palm oil in your cookies?
To really understand, I have to find out what palm oil is used for. To begin with I speak to Franziska Grammes from Codecheck, an app with a database that shows us what's in the products we buy. One of the ingredients it finds is palm oil.
Am I lucky?
To my surprise, I found almost no food products at home that contain palm oil. But it popped up often in the cosmetics. Without the app it would have been harder to identify palm oil. It is rarely mentioned directly in product ingredient lists. Instead you will see mentions of things like vegetable oil, palmate and palmitate.
Green palm oil?
Codecheck distinguishes between good and bad palm oil. Good means "certified." This certification is the main contentious issue in the discussion about palm oil. But I wanted to understand the difference better. There are different ways to assess palm oil, whether it is produced sustainably.
To determine whether palm oil can be declared 'sustainable' or not, many parameters have to be included in the calculation. Is the palm oil produced in a monoculture, or does the rainforest remain untouched? Which fertilizers are used to which extent? Are pesticides used? Do different production standards apply to different markets? And what are farmers getting out of it? Can they make a living growing this crop?
The conservation group WWF has launched the best known and most controversial certification standard, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The standard is adopted by many big players in the market, including supermarket chains.
The main producers
Palm oil is widely used in Asia. No country consumes more palm oil a year than India: 10.4 million tons. This is followed by Indonesia, with 9.1 million tons. Compared to this, the European Union consumes a relatively small amount: 6.5 million tons.
Not enough space?
According to WWF, one hectare of farmland produces about 3.3 tonnes of palm oil. That's a lot compared to a yield of only 0.4 tons of soya or 0.7 tons of coconut from the same space. That's why, the WWF says, we must significantly reduce consumption.
Would it not be possible, at least in Europe, to exchange palm oil for another local oil? I asked Ilka Peterson of the WWF. It's not that easy, she says. There is simply not enough free space.
But critics of the WWF concept disagree: Sven Selbert is one of them. He works for the environmental protection organization Robin Wood.
Is change possible?
So, according to Robin Wood, the switch to rapeseed is potentially viable. In addition, land has to be freed up. And this could be done if we finally stopped burning precious oil for fuel, Sven Selbert adds. Keep in mind that in Germany, 44 percent of palm oil is used for biodiesel and 33 percent for food products.
Melt in your mouth
You know, palm oil's main plus is that its perfect melting point is 27 degrees Celsius - or room temperature.
The same goes for palm kernel oil, which is obtained from the kernels of the plant's fruit. As one of the solid vegetable fats, it melts from 23 degrees.
So, if you've ever wondered why your favourite chocolate is so extra smooth, that's the reason.
However, both of these advantages over other vegetable oils make it hard for those seeking an alternative.
Searching for alternatives
So, a different concept is possible. But demonizing palm oil would also be wrong. The tree itself is actually quite harmless.
Native to the rainforests of West Africa, Portuguese sailors brought word of the palm tree to Europe in 1466. Almost 200 years later, the first palm tree made it's way to Europe and Asia, initially as an ornamental plant.
As the tree thrives best with plenty of light and water in loose soil, conditions in Asia proved perfect. Adding temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius, palm trees grow fast and they can grow to be 120 years old.
In the end, I think palm oil is not a bad product. As with so many other things, it had the bad luck of becoming big business. But customers carry the key to sustainability. Buy less of the conventional stuff and the industry will shrink. Switch to other, sustainable or locally grown oil products and we might get rid of the terrible ecological footprint palm oil has. We can also have an impact by cutting down on meat and leaving our cars at home, as lots of palm oil is used to feed livestock and fuel cars.