Chocolate, chips, candy, ice cream… They all contain it

October 1, 2019

Even your makeup, soaps and lotions could contain a substance whose cultivation contributes to deforestation and displacement of small-scale farmers.

Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce. For that reason, it’s used in many processed foods and household products. You may not even realize how much palm oil you have in your household, because it can be listed as many vague things like palmitate, glyceryl stearate and vegetable oil.

Of plant based oils, palm oil has an unequalled oil yield per hectare. Each palm fruit contains 50 per cent oil that can be harvested 12 months of the year.

But to meet the insatiable demand of industrial food processing, palm oil is now increasingly cultivated on large-scale plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Columbia, Nigeria and Guatemala. In many of these areas, palm plantations have become a threat to the environment and the health of local communities.

Palm oil production is also pushing small-scale farmers onto marginal lands, threatening their traditional livelihood and way of life.

In Guatemala, where we work with Indigenous family farmers, palm oil production has expanded sevenfold in the past 10 years. This boom is forcing the majority Indigenous population to give up the land they’ve cultivated for years to make way for plantations. Some farmers begin a codependent relationship with a palm oil plantation – many paid only $8 for a 12 hour workday.

This loss of farmland means a loss of sustainable and diverse food sources for the communities.

And food insecurity is one important factor in a complex set of reasons why many Guatemalans have chosen to leave their country.

A major environmental concern with large scale palm oil production is the loss of biodiversity caused by deforestation to make room for the oil palm fields. For example, studies estimate that 100,000 Bornean orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015 due to this deforestation.

To make matters worse, the plantations do not sequester carbon at the same rate as the forests and healthy soils they replace, exacerbating the climate crisis. Plus to produce palm oil, the fruits must be harvested from the tops of the trees. As the trees grow taller and the fruit becomes difficult to reach, the palm trees are cut down. And to top it off, the tree’s root structure causes long term damage to the soil making it less fertile over time, so reclaiming the land afterward becomes increasingly difficult.

Palm plantations are particularly toxic for the women who work there. On most palm plantations, men are tasked with harvesting the heavy palm fruits. Women have the job of spraying the trees with a concoction of herbicides and pesticides, posing a major risk to their health. Many plantations use paraquat, a herbicide banned in most of Europe, linked to Parkinson’s disease, and lung and kidney failure.

In 2015 a major toxic waste spill from palm oil producer RESPA in La Pasión River contaminated the food and water supply of thousands of people in Guatemala’s Sayaxché region.The company was found guilty of ecocide and was ordered to suspend operations for an investigation. To this day members of the fishing communities along the river feeling the effects of the spill, which caused a major drop in fish populations and health concerns for the community.

Palm oil plantations illustrate the need for a shift in the way we grow our food. When agricultural decisions are taken solely on the basis of optimizing yields and profits, other important factors – like justice and sustainability – pay the price. We can’t continue growing our food at the expense of the planet, farmers, and our health.

That’s why we work with small-scale farmers around the world to change the food system.

Herlinda Matias is a farmer and facilitator working with our Guatemalan program. (Photo: Lise-Anne Léveillé/SeedChange)

What you can do

Our local partner in Guatemala, ASOCUCH, is a collective of Indigenous farmers’ cooperatives supporting food security at the community level. Supported, connected and empowered farmers are better able to stay on their family land so it is less likely to end up controlled by large palm oil corporations. We must support small-scale farmers in Guatemala and around the world so they can continue to steward their land with care and provide the diverse and sustainable food to their communities.

If you are buying chocolate be mindful of the products you are purchasing and where the ingredients come from. Making an effort to avoid palm oil is an important first step. You can also support small-scale farmers through organizations, like SeedChange, promoting the rights of farmers, listening to their voices and keeping the control of diverse and sustainable crops in their hands.

If we work together with farmers, we can reclaim power over our food system and find ways to grow healthier food, fairly and sustainably.