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The health benefits of virgin, organic red palm oil are extraordinary. This nutritional powerhouse has been credited with providing cancer protection and boosting brain health, as well as preventing a myriad of health issues such as cardiovascular disease and stroke, asthma, liver disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and even macular degeneration. Mostly solid at room temperature, it is excellent for cooking, baking, and frying, and can replace the harmful trans fats and hydrogenated oils that increasingly are being banned for health reasons.
With its growing demand, palm oil has captured the attention of environmental activists, some of whom claim that its cultivation could be the cause of deforestation and related environmental difficulties. While palm oil from West Africa and South America presents fewer sustainability issues, the entire worldwide industry is viewed as a whole by most consumers. Problems have been especially challenging in Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, home to the Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.
Roundtable on sustainable palm oil
In 2002, as a result of this controversy, the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) began exploring the idea of a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Two years later, the RSPO was formed. According to its website, “The seat of the association is in Zurich, Switzerland, the Secretariat is based in Kuala Lumpur with a RSPO Liaison office in Jakarta.” The organization now has over 1000 members from more than 50 countries.
Its goal is to “transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm.” RSPO claims, “Oil palm is completely GMO-free and produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than soybean, rape[seed] or sunflower. Oil palm produces more than 34 percent (palm and palm kernel oil) of the world’s eight major vegetable oils on less than 5 percent of the total area under oil crops. This means that, to produce the same volume of oil, oil palm requires less land. . . . Palm oil is a more sustainable producer of vegetable oil than other crops.” (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)
Palm oil innovation group
The WWF supports the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), launched on June 28, 2013, at the Tropical Forest Alliance meeting. The POIG currently consists of international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) along with several palm oil-producing companies that are active in socioenvironmental issues.
POIG’s standards build on criteria set by the RSPO, and extend the requirements to include social concerns and workers’ rights. According to the activist group Greenpeace, one of POIG's charter members, POIG added stricter requirements “to ensure that there is a supply of traceable palm oil free from forest and peatland destruction and human rights abuses.” (mongabay.com)
Greenpeace added, “The palm oil industry has suffered from a bad reputation from its association with forest destruction and exploitation. We are building a strong case that palm oil does not need to be linked to forest destruction and exploitation. From producers and traders, through to palm oil consumers, we are creating an approach that can be replicated across the industry, and which will increase demand for responsible palm oil.”
Sustainable palm oil cultivation
Bruce Fife, ND, is the director of the Coconut Research Center and author of The Palm Oil Miracle. In his book, Fife addresses the sustainability question. He states that in Malaysia, the world’s primary producer of palm oil, “less than 19 percent of the country’s total landmass is currently used for cultivation for various agricultural crops, including oil palm. . . . Palm oil cultivation . . . uses only a fraction of the land area required by other crops, thus preserving forests and protecting the environment. . . . Wildlife is allowed to roam in and out of the farms unhindered. You don’t see this on farms that grow soybeans, corn, or peanuts. . . . In addition, thousands of tons of pesticides are sprayed on soybean and other oil crops, causing untold damage to the environment, not to mention your health. Palm plantations generally do not use pesticides.”
Groups like WWF, POIG, and the RSPO are dedicated to ensuring that this sustainable superfood is produced without introducing harm, possibly providing jobs and restoring lost wildlife habitats in the process. and RSPO claims that no new primary forests or high conservation value areas have been cleared for palm oil production since November 2005. To be RSPO certified, new oil palm plantations must either be on land that was cleared before that date or submit an environmental report for individual consideration.
Our responsibilities as consumers
As the certification standards are refined and the movement gains momentum, improvements will increase. But these issues are consumer-driven and will only flourish when buyers and end users demand that their palm oil is from sustainable sources.
When looking for palm oil, be sure to read the label for its origin and method of processing. Ideally, as with all food choices, research the supplier and source their palm oil product from beginning to end. Find out what country the palm oil came from, and which farming, labor, and production methods were used. Rather than simply trusting a label that states “sustainably produced,” look for certifying seals such as those issued by the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL). ISEAL is committed to enforcing similar standards of sustainable production regardless of farm, brand, corporation, or nation.
By supporting certified, sustainable palm oil, each of us can make a contribution to the forests, people, and animals where oil palm is grown. Virgin, organic red palm oil from sustainable sources can be a very healthful oil, both for consumers and for the environment.
For more information, see “Red Palm Oil: A Daily Dose of Vitamins From Cooking Oil” by Bruce Fife, ND, in the Fall 2007 Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing. Become a member today to receive access to this journal along with many other health and nutrition resources.