PALM OIL AND THE PANDEMIC.


Man bitten by spider, masks and economic struggles. BFI IMAX cinema, London. Summer 2020.


They say truth is stranger than fiction: cosmetic cream is related to the pandemic. Perhaps not directly, but they are correlated in the same way as cream crackers and the petrol we put in our cars. The coronavirus not only revealed our interconnectedness and interdependency to each other, but laid bare our disconnect to a reality engulfing disruption upon the world. It has often been said by governments and the media that the virus was spreading but it was rarely spelt out that it was humans who were spreading it. Mouthpieces took a virus with no conscious motivation and imbued it with an intent to harm people. That the virus, had come on it’s own accord, to disrupt our way of life. Little is known about the specifics about how and where it came to be but it is widely believed that it was transmitted from animals. Animals can pass diseases and viruses to each other when they inhabit each others space when they are often forced into the same environments due to their original habitats being razed to the ground by humans by the process of deforestation. Deforestation is the means in which forests are legally and illegally cleared to grow certain crops- crops such as oil palm. Animal gets virus, transmission happens across to humans and before you know it- well, we know what happened next.


I am not suggesting that the production of palm oil alone caused the pandemic but it certainly is an activity that contributes to not only the spreading of viruses, but climate change. I am not however, advocating a boycott of palm oil- this is not the answer. Here are some facts about this substance everyone uses but know so little about:


  • To make creams, you need emulsifiers. Most emulsifiers used to make cream contain palm oil.

  • Palm oil is also widely used in food but a majority of exports to the EU are used to make biofuels.

  • Palm oil is cheap and extremely versatile- an almost ‘magic crop’ if you want.

  • Compared to soy, palm oil only requires one tenth as much land, one- seventh as much fertiliser, one- fourteenth as much pesticide and one-sixth of the energy to produce the same quantity of oil.

  • The majority of global output is exported from Indonesia and Malaysia (others countries include Thailand, Nigeria, Columba and Ecuador).

  • The EU imports a fifth of the worlds production of oil palm.

  • It provides an income to many lower income families who grow it and has lifted millions from poverty.

  • Local people have also suffered illegal land grabs and abusive labour conditions.

  • Illegal deforestration has been part of growing palm.

  • Peatlands are also cleared and in the process releases CO2 contributing to climate change (an estimated one third of Indonesian and Malaysian plantations are on peatlands).

  • Peat drainage in Southeast Asia, largely to clear land for oil palms is estimated to cause the equivalent. of 2% of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

  • Palm oil growth has risen 30% in 10 years.

  • Fires are used to burn down forests for palm plantations and contribute to global warming. In 2015 over several weeks, fires destroyed an area the size of Belgium and contributed to as many as 100,000 pre mature deaths.

  • There are sustainability schemes such as the RSPO and the GAKPI but both have faced criticism regarding compliance from it’s members.

Palm oil is in most creams. It’s in cosmetic creams, cream crackers, vegetable oil, peanut butter, crisps, margarine, shampoo, make up- the list is endless. It is also in biofuels which is what a majority of what it is used for in the EU. We accept that palm oil is so versatile and widely used that it is here to stay. Boycotting, clearly is neither a viable or suitable solution. The issue is how to deal with the sustainable production of it and shifting the reliance of it to other sustainable options. You may have seen labels such as 'sustainable palm oil' or RSPO palm oil on products. 'Sustainable palm' can largely be called a myth, according to various reports and eco bodies. The RSPO (Round Table of Sustainable Palm) which is the international body that set the standards for sustainable palm has come under a lot of criticism for it’s un enforceable rules and that ‘sustainable palm’ was a 'con'* (said Greenpeace). It is noted that although the RSPO on paper is a good idea, in practice it is plagued by the logistics of the countries it operates within. No doubt that progress is slow and significant strides have yet to be made**. Finding ways for manageable, sustainable agriculture is one of the key solutions to the palm issue. One suggestion that a path towards sustainable growth would be to plant on degraded land rather than replacing forest and avoid the negative impact on the livelihoods of millions of farmers***.

You would be hard pressed to find palm oil free skincare unless it didn’t contain water. Balms or masks do not use water. Although cosmetics and skincare comprise of only a small proportion of palm oil use, it is the majority of skincare/cream that uses palm oil which was the reason why we created our range so people could have a new choice.


As a majority of imported palm is used for biofuel, it is an important issue to touch on and there is progress of this front. Once hailed as the new fuel, biofuels such as bio diesel were made either from palm, soy or rapeseed. In 2011, the International Energy Agency forecast that biofuels could make up 27 percent of global transportation fuels by 2050 and the EU ruled that biodiesel must comprise of 10% of transport fuel by 2020. Although recently due to the demands for biofuels to be truly eco friendly, palm has been slated to be banned in the use in biofuels if they cannot prove their eco credentials (producing less emissions than conventional oil). This is also a concern as it only diverts the attention to soy and rapeseed which uses more land, water and energy to produce and therefore drive up food prices hurting low income households***. In recent events however, there has been an upsurge in support for hydrogen and electric vehicles to lead sustainable vehicles/fuels and this would offset the reliance on ‘green’ biodiesel/fuels. Electric vehicles however need batteries and batteries need both base and precious metals which need mining- which isn't exactly a 'green' activity. This is the same as needing silver for solar panels. We are just at the beginning of this significant shift.


As we branch out to different areas of alternative energy and practices, this illustrates some of the quandaries of sustainable practices. There are many solutions but we must find the balance in order to survive this technological adolescence. Nature fired a warming shot across the bow and I hope lessons were learnt from this pandemic because it won’t be the last. The next may well be more severe so prevention would be preferable. From air traffic pollution to managing natural resources, palm is one of many issues among the challenges we face switching to green societies. We need more understanding of the inequities that exist in poorer countries and to include them on how to make viable solutions to local problems that affect globally- not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because climate change, food security and changing economies will affect them the most.


Political and social ideologies affected the perception, relationship and ultimately the effect of the pandemic had on countries (without negating related wealth factors). Although gone are the days of empire, we have seen attitudes of exceptionalism in the face of an incoming virus and consequently, the people in these countries in the midst of government hubris and rhetoric, have bared the brunt of their unforgivable mismanagement of society. The rise of nationalism, isolationism, mis information and the far right all contribute to a division between people and towards a narrative that steers us away from working together to find solutions to global problems. We cannot afford to be divisive; we must find common ground. We need to find a map that educates a generation because in all likelihood- we created this pandemic and subsequently, many governments failed to protect us from it- a failure of magnitudes that will affect a generation. It is the scientists that developed these vaccines that will likely bring back the world in which we lived. And as we simmer patiently, the inequities of the world will see most wait even longer. We need only to look to the countries that have not only had low infection rates, but have eradicated the virus without a single lockdown to see that from day one onwards, we did not have a national plan to eradicate the virus, but only slow the spread. This is the reason we are all still sitting at home with a death toll of over 120,000 people in 12 months.


Neither current palm oil production or continuous lockdowns are sustainable. To look forward, we need to be mindful of the variety of sustainable practices we choose and the possible consequences they have. Not only is sustainability all the rage, but along with it, 'greenwashing'****. The pandemic may have been unintentionally man made but the reaction undoubtedly wasn't. Now, in this time, not only do we have the means to decrease the chances of virus transmission from animals to humans but also hindsight to deal with an incoming one. As citizens, not just governments as we have seen, are together responsible for what happens next. To best sum up my perspective on these issues, I leave you with someone who said it best…


“…To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand…”


Arundhati Roy The Cost of Living

  • J

*https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-12-12/can-palm-oil-demand-be-met-without-rainforest

**https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/WWtW2-spreads.pdf

***http://theconversation.com/palm-oil-an-eu-ban-wont-save-asian-rainforests-but-heres-what-might-help- 110519

****https://www.queenieorganics.com/single-post/2020/08/19/greenwashing


Further reading:

https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2020/659335/EPRS_ATA(2020)659335_EN.pdf


https://epthinktank.eu/2018/02/19/palm-oil-economic-and-environmental-impacts/


http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/publications/iisd_eu_biofuel_policy_palm_oil_september2013_ 0.pdf

https://www.power-technology.com/features/does-biofuel-have-a-palm-oil-problem/

http://www.wwf-congobasin.org/what_we_do/green_economy/sustainable_palm_oil_development/

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-12-12/can-palm-oil-demand-be-met-without-rainforest https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00458-5

https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n314 https://anchor.fm/lshtm/episodes/S2E5-What-do-we-know-about-climate-change--COVID-19-emck5c

https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/palm-oil/palm-oil-free-list


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