One of the reasons some people turn to permaculture is a great concern with the impact that modern commercial agricultural practices are having on the planet. To meet the demands of consumers, and to maximize profits, agricultural practices have increasingly turned from nature in an attempt to increase yield over the short-term, with alarming consequences for the planet, at a local and global level.
Among the most problematic of agricultural products in this respect is palm oil. It is divisive because palm oil was initially touted as a ‘green’ crop and literally a fuel in making products less harmful to the atmosphere. The oil is a key component in biodiesel, considered a potential replacement for fossil fuel-based gasoline as an energy source for automobiles.
Palm oil is also marketed as a healthier alternative to other vegetable oils in food as it has lower levels of unsaturated trans fats that are often detrimental to human health. The added bonus that links these two purported benefits was that palm oil that had been used to fry food, for instance, could then be used to create biodiesel, making it a multi-function product. Palm oil is also used extensively in many industrial food production processes.
In theory, such a product, with its multiplicity of functions would normally appeal to permaculturists for its efficiency, but the rising demand for palm oil has had, and is continuing to have, such severe consequences that many are calling for much tighter regulation on production. Here are the reasons why.
Most pal oil production occurs in tropical locations, where the climatic conditions suit the plant. Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are primary producers. Because of increasing demand, more and more land is being turned over to palm oil production in countries such as these, an not just agricultural land; native rainforests are being cut down to make room form more palm oil plantations. This loss of natural rainforest has many nock-on effects.
Rainforests are significant holders, or ‘sinks’ of carbon dioxide. When the rainforest is cut down, this carbon is released into the atmosphere, and with carbon dioxide being a primary greenhouse gas, adding to the problem of climate change. The same goes for the water in wetlands that are also being cleared for palm oil production and the peat in peat bogs; the carbon dioxide in the water is released into the atmosphere.
The primary means by which the rainforests have been removed is slashing and burning. Not only does this release the harmful greenhouse gases into the air, it also causes air pollution from the smoke, harming the health of workers and other people in the country. The smoke can travel many kilometers, and in previous years plantation fires in Indonesia even caused Singapore airport to close because of a ‘haze’ travelled between the countries. While officially burning rainforests has been outlawed, the practice is still widespread.
The loss of the rainforests has a major impact on biodiversity. Not only does it remove the wide variety of interlinked plant species that make up a forest, replacing them with a monoculture, by doing so they remove the habitat and food source of many species of animal. Creatures such as the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Asian elephant are endangered, with the major driver of their decline being loss of habitat.
As permaculturists know, even on a small scale, when soil is left uncovered or is not planted with a variety of species, it is prone to erosion. With the palm oil plantations, the erosion of soil is significant. It occurs dramatically when the rainforest is cleared, but also while the plantation stands, as there is no ground cover crops to helps protect the soil. The erosion of the soil by wind and, primarily in these tropical locations, rain, means that the healthy topsoil gets washed away and can clog up rivers and other water bodies. The lack of biodiversity also means that the plantation lacks the natural means to protect itself against pests and diseases, and attain the nutrients needed to grow. Thus, pesticides, fungicides and inorganic fertilizers are added to the soil. But these leach through to the water table and get washed off the land by erosion, and pollute water sources, affecting both people and animals.
Rainforest clearance also denies indigenous forest people of their home. But many more people who don’t live in the forests depend upon them for heir livelihood. By destroying the rainforests, palm oil production forces many people into poverty as they have lost their means of making a living. And with the pollution of the air and water sources caused by burning and soil erosion, even basic needs such as air and water are being compromised for many people. Furthermore, large national companies or even multinationals own many of the plantations so that the profits from the sale of the product do not benefit the local people.
Lack of Regulation
In 2003 some international efforts between governments and companies was made to set standards for making some palm oil production sustainable. A body was set up that called for a halt to rainforest clearance, respect for local indigenous peoples, and more environmentally aware production practices. However, because of continued rising demand for the product in the West and thus the profitability of its production to the countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, there is little regulation to enforce these codes of conduct, and many of the most destructive aspects of palm oil production continue unabated.
Lack of Awareness
This lack of political will to curtail the production of palm oil finds expression also in the lack of clear and precise labeling of food products that would allow consumers to decide whether to purchase a product that contains palm oil. At present food labels do not have to specify where any palm oil contained within comes from, and in many cases needs only to refer to ‘vegetable oil’ if others besides palm oil are used.