Palm oil is a unique crop. It’s the world’s most popular edible oil, comprising one third of all vegetable oil consumed across the planet. According to global data, every single person consumes 17 pounds of palm oil per year on average. Roughly half of all packaged goods in our pantries contain palm oil, and it’s found in a multitude of beauty products, though you wouldn’t recognize it without doing some research: decyl glucoside (a cleansing agent), lauryl glucoside (a surfactant), sodium lauryl sulfate (another surfactant, often referred to as SLS), glycerin (an alcohol compound that can act as a sweetener, solvent, or humectant, among other purposes) and cetearyl alcohol (a fatty alcohol blend with stabilizing and emollient properties) are all often derived from palm oil, and these compounds are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether or not you’re aware of it, palm oil is a huge part of your life.
With such far-reaching uses (and high global demand), it’s no wonder that palm oil is such a popular crop with farmers around the world. Grown near the equator, it’s the highest yielding vegetable oil on the planet, producing 5–10 times more oil than soybean, canola, or sunflower oil.
It offers a very high yield relative to the cost of its production, making it an attractive crop in the countries where it can be produced. About 85% of the world’s palm oil is grown in the tropical countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea on huge plantations. These plantations use practices that are terrible for the environment, including clear-cutting and the destruction of giant swaths of rainforest.
These practices endanger animals such as the orangutan, whose numbers have been reduced by fifty percent in Indonesia in recent years. In Borneo alone, 50% of the critically endangered Pongo pygmaeus has been affected by human conflict largely driven by palm oil production, with an estimated 100,000 of these animals lost between 1999—2015. In the past sixty years, half of the entire Bornean orangutan population has been devastated, and only 1,500 of the most highly threatened subspecies remain. Fewer than 80,000 of all orangutans exist today, with Indonesia and Malaysia providing their only remaining home. With these countries providing so much of the world’s palm oil (and palm plantations posing the greatest threat to the loss of orangutan habitat), it’s not difficult to see the enormity of the problem. Since we share about 97% of our DNA with orangutans, it’s especially devastating to think about their potential extinction from the planet. Other animals are also threatened by conventional palm oil production, such as the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhino, and the Bornean pygmy elephant. All of these animals are endangered, with the majority of them being listed as critically endangered.
In addition to such massive animal losses, palm plantations also result in horrific human rights abuses including child labor, human trafficking, and the exposure of unprotected workers to hazardous chemicals. Poor palm farming practices also result in rainforest loss which releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. With the world’s rainforests on schedule to completely disappear within a century at current rates of destruction, the enormity of the problem is overwhelming.
But banning the production of palm oil (or boycotting its use in products) would only result in more loss and destruction. To replace palm oil with a different vegetable oil would require 4—10 times more land, which would just shift the problem elsewhere, endangering different species and abusing different people. Worse, corporate commitments to source better palm oil are often empty promises, with no significant changes being made at any level of production. It’s lip service at its worst, and consumers are left with no way to effectively make any meaningful change. And worldwide palm oil production is only set to rise, increasing the problems associated with its production. What are we to do?
Enter Natural Habitats. Based in the Netherlands, the company has some of the strictest standards for palm production in the world. Its palm oil is 100% certified organic and fairly traded, produced by a network of family farms in Ecuador. Natural Habitats endorses the use of good farming practices such as cover cropping and composting, as well as promoting opportunities for farmers to benefit from multicropping (growing organic cacao and passionfruit on the same land as their palms). The farms have been converted from conventional to organic, and the company encourages the planting of palm trees on degraded land, using regenerative agriculture practices to rebuild the soil and improve the quality of each farm.
There is no deforestation allowed on virgin or secondary growth rain forest. Animal grazing is used on many of the farms to sustainably reduce undergrowth and provide manure, which helps to rebuild soils and improve wild animal habitat. And a fully transparent vertically-integrated supply chain allows its customers to see exactly how and where its oil is produced, an unprecedented move within an industry where obscured sourcing is the norm. Sustainable practices are at the core of everything Natural Habitats does, providing a much-needed antidote to the abuse and destruction that runs rampant in much of the rest of the palm oil industry.
Natural Habitats offers a vast array of reasons for its farmers to convert from conventional to organic production methods. The company employs six full-time agronomists who support the farmers in their fields, educating them about how to best implement organic practices. The organic certification process itself is paid for by Natural Habitats, which also offers subsidies to farmers who experience a dip in production output while they transition their farming methods. The farmers are paid premium prices, which provides yet another incentive to switch to better farming practices.
Natural Habitats has also created a movement called Palm Done Right, which is helping to increase awareness of the benefits of well-produced palm oil. This serves to increase the market for their farmers, as well as educating consumers about the issues surrounding palm oil production. Palm Done Right offers recipes, nutritional information, and a wealth of other information about why their palm oil is good for you and good for the environment.
It’s clear to us here at New Barn Organics that the best available solution for the world’s palm oil crisis is to choose Palm Done Right. We use this palm oil in our Buttery Spread because it’s better for the planet, including the orangutans and other animals whose very lives depend on the choices we make as manufacturers and consumers. And since Palm Done Right is so much better for the environment, it’s well aligned with our company’s mission to make simple, nourishing organic food that honors the land and people who produce it.
We hope you’ll want to learn more about Palm Done Right’s retail and brand partners (that includes us!), businesses who have made the commitment to source ethically and organically produced palm oil. Together we’re making a difference, one business—and one customer—at a time.
Won’t you join us?
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all photos and infographics were provided courtesy of Palm Done Right. These pictures represent producers, communities and landscapes of the Palm Done Right supply network.