Friday, 29 September 2017

Why I will not buy organic food that contains palm oil

My last blog post questioned whether choosing organic food over non organic was always the best choice for the environment.  Many people are happy to pay extra for organic food thinking they are doing the very best for the environment.  However, in my view, there are many instances when organic food does not offer the best environmental choice, including when it contains palm oil:

Quote from my blog post:

When organic foods are contain palm oil  

We all know the devastating effects palm oil plantations are having on the rain forests of Asia and South America and the animals and plants that used to live there.  Manufacturers may say their palm oil is sustainable (what exactly does that mean anyway?) but the production of all palm oil goes far beyond just destroying habitats.  The working conditions of those harvesting and processing the crops is often extremely poor with no health care in place and workers are paid very low wages.  For the consumer, palm oil is far from a healthy product being high in saturated fats.  So why do organic producers even use it in their products?  Simply because it is the cheapest fat currently available.

I then received this comment from Jana315:

"Organic palm oil, all of the world's producers, grow in sustainably. Organic palm oil is the BEST choice among oils. Please do your research so that you are educated properly on this subject. Organic Palm oil is zero chemical input, pays farmers well and is ALL non-gmo. All palm oil is non-gmo. Responsible palm cultivation is a solution to feed the world."
In hindsight I had greatly simplified the organic palm oil issue, as I had done with each point in the blog, and so I wish to expand it here, both answering Jana315 and further clarifying why I stand by my claim that choosing organic foods containing palm oil may not be the best environmental choice.

Jana315 wrote that:

"Organic palm oil, all of the world's producers, grow in sustainably." 

I dispute this as there is nothing to stop organic palm oil being grown on recently cleared forest and it goes without saying how much environmental damage is caused when virgin rain forest is cleared.  This is not sustainable in my view.

Quote from Rainforest Rescue - Questions and answers about palm oil

"The organic food industry also relies heavily on palm oil. Hundreds of products of major manufacturers such as Alnatura, Allos and Rapunzel contain the tropical oil. While organic farming prohibits the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetic engineering, organic labels do not establish standards against rainforest destruction and land grabbing. Furthermore, vast industrial monocultures – including those that fulfil organic production standards – can hardly be deemed environmentally sound."

Jana315 wrote that:

"Organic Palm oil ... pays farmers well and is ALL non-gmo."

I agree that all organic palm oil is likely to be non GMO but I am struggling to find any details on the rights of workers on organic palm oil plantations and further along the palm oil production chain.  I would sincerely hope that the organic palm oil producers do not use child and forced labour but I would like to see more evidence of this.

I did however find this:

Quote from Rainforest Rescue - Palm oil – deforestation for everyday products
"Palm oil is not only bad for the climate: As their forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations."

Jana315 wrote that: "Organic palm oil is the BEST choice among oils .. "

When making an environmental choice many factors must be considered.  On its own, the fact that chemicals are banned in its plantations is a positive but what does BEST actually mean?  Best price for manufacturers, best oil for health, best oil for productivity, best oil for the environment?  I am afraid the use of the word "best" in this sentence means nothing and it needs further clarification.

Jana315 wrote that:

"... and responsible palm cultivation is a solution to feed the world."

The sad fact is that the vast majority of palm oil ends up in highly processed foods which are also high is sugars.  The West is now experiencing an epidemic of obesity which more and more medical professionals and blaming on the increased consumption of processed foods - biscuits, margarines, ready meals, pastries etc.  High calorie, high sugar and high fat.  Palm oil is trans-fat free but is still contains relatively high levels of saturated fat, especially palm kernel oil. These processed foods containing palm oil are not "feeding the world", they are in fact causing it to overeat the wrong foods leading to ever greater levels of obesity-related diseases - heart disease and strokes, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure etc.

Furthermore, a monoculture of palm oil is not putting foods on the plates of those living in the developing world where there is the greatest population increase.  Instead palm oil is being sent to the West to go into processed foods.  If the forest had to have been cleared to feed the world then surely they should have been planted with crops that the developing world can actually eat?  Vegetables and fruit.  Real food, not highly processed foods.  In my opinion, that is one way we can feed the world. 

And what of food waste?  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one third of all food produced (from source to consumer) is wasted.  The world does not need to be producing more food, it needs to stop wasting what it currently produces.  More details on food waste from the World Economic Forum can be found here.

Finally, two other points also in my original post, lead me to believe that choosing organic palm oil is not necessarily a good environmental choice.  As already discussed, palm oil often ends up in processed foods and these are invariably heavily wrapped in plastic.  59% of all the plastic produced in the world is used in plastic packaging and a percentage of that will be for products labelled organic.  Also when palm oil is consumed outside of the tropical regions where it is grown that adds a considerable amount of food miles to the final product.  Foods with plastic packaging and which contain high food miles are not sustainable and I feel these factors, together with the others discussed in this post, negate many of the advantages of the product being labelled organic.  Truly organic produce, in my opinion, should not be highly processed, it should be locally produced in a sustainable manner and not sold heavily packed in plastic

The Future for Palm Oil

Palm oil production is not going to stop and its current problems, of which there are many, are not going to disappear overnight.  The industry, both organic and non-organic, carries some very dirty secrets it would rather we did not know about as we tuck into our deliciously tasty biscuits etc and these need to be addressed and resolved.  In my opinion, no further palm oil plantations (organic or otherwise) need to be planted and the developed world needs to take a radical look at what is is eating and question whether the products weighing down many of our shopping baskets are the best for the health of individuals and the planet.

Organic palm oil may have some advantages over non-organic but I still feel consuming it is a poor environmental choice and therefore, I stand by my original post stating that buying organic products containing palm oil may not always be the best environmental choice when all factors are taken into consideration.

You may disagree and I would be interested to hear your comments.

Rainforest clearance in Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations. Image from The Independent


  1. Hi Rosie,
    Thanks for sharing all the informative information about Palm Oil. I really didn't think a lot about Palm oil before and usually didn't check for that so much but I always check to make sure there is no Canola oil is the ingredients - if there is I don't buy it. Sharing on twitter, google & pinning.

  2. This is incredible. It's amazing what we learn about our food when we look.

  3. Isn't that the worst when you get excited about something and find that it has palm oil in it. That happened the other day to me. But I held my ground and didn't buy it. I think that palm oil is something that more people should know about.


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