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Is your labial threatening one of the species closest to humans?
Are the pizza or the cookies or margarine that you bought in the supermarket ending with ancestral forests?
Some estimates suggest that half of the products we see in supermarkets contain palm oil , a substance as common as it is controversial because of its great environmental impact.
But replacing palm oil with other soy, coconut or canola oils is not the solution, according to a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“Lipsticks, shampoo, creams …”
“Palm oil is one of the most common products in the daily life of any person in the world at this time because it is an oil that is supremely efficient,” Colombian scientist Natalia Ocampo Peñuela , ecologist of conservation , told BBC Mundo. and researcher at the ETH University of Zurich in Switzerland, who has studied the impact of oil palm in Asia and Latin America.
“Palm oil needs little area to produce much and has an ideal texture for many products, so it is used in cosmetics, lipsticks, shampoos, creams, everything you can imagine.”
“It’s an oil that needs a very high temperature to melt in . If you put, for example, coconut oil in a lipstick, that lipstick will melt faster than if you have palm oil.”
The consistency or texture is “like butter and is ideal for products that need to maintain that texture over a long time in many types of climate.”
Palm oil is also one of the main fats in foods and is used for oils, chocolate, margarine, cookies , and “anything that requires some type of fat.”
It is also used in detergents and cleaning products, and to replace a part of gasoline in biofuels .
The use of palm oil shot up in the 80s when the palm was introduced in Asia, where the plant does not have natural pests, explained the expert Ocampo Peñuela.
“The palm oil ( Elaeis guineensis ) is native to Africa and grows only in the tropics at low elevations, which means that it grows in the same place where there is tropical rainforest and in Indonesia and Malaysia has been a major cause of widespread deforestation of primary forests “.
The oil palm in Borneo has been devastating for a particular species.
” The oil palm displaces orangutans, and those who survive are pushed into areas where they are in conflict with humans who hunt them or kill them,” Erik Meijaard , lead author of the IUCN study , told the BBC .
“Orangutans are an incredibly versatile species, but what they can not deal with is these killings, they reproduce very slowly, so these deaths have a big impact.”
The number of orangutans was reduced by about 150,000 individuals between 1999 and 2015, according to a March 2018 study, which also mentions other causes of decline such as hunting.
10 times more land
How can the impact of palm oil be reduced?
Palm oil represents 35% of the world production of vegetable oils but uses only 10% of the land used in that production.
Substituting palm oil for canola, soy or coconut oil would require 10 times more land , so it is not a solution, according to the IUCN study.
“If you stop producing palm oil, the oil will be produced elsewhere, so instead of damaging the orangutans, you would damage the jaguars, simply push the problem aside because the demand continues to exist,” explains the lead author of the study. .
The example of Colombia
For Natalia Ocampo Peñuela, “palm is not the same everywhere in the world, the problem is when it replaces natural ecosystems”.
“Part of my job I have shown the impact of the palm in Asia on birds and mammals and has been devastating in ú last four decades , while in Colombia we have a study that just came out and said that Palm has not had that negative impact on biodiversity “.
The ecologist explained that ” in Colombia the palm has not replaced forests because it has been planted in degraded lands , but in Peru and Ecuador, where it is expanding in the last five years, there has been deforestation.”
The important thing, according to the Colombian scientist, is to see how it is sown and where.
“Currently they are planted as very extensive monocultures, it is a green desert.”The first alternative is to create plantations that have another mixture of crops, not just palm, or that leave patches or forest corridors inside the plantation so that the animals can move around. the plantations. “
“And it must be planted in areas that do not have natural ecosystems at present, there should be no deforestation, there are studies that have shown that in the world there is enough degraded land to plant without it being necessary to knock down the forest and meet the demand .”
The power of consumers
“The palm is a crop that is here to stay because production is very cheap,” says Ocampo Peñuela.
But the researcher says that ” as consumers we have enough power to know where palm oil comes from.”
“There are several certifications, the main one is the RCPO, acronym for Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil(Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil). These certifications in the product guarantee better plantations although they are a bit short on biodiversity issues, because their requirements are low. “
In addition there are countries with their own certification levels.
“Here in Switzerland, for example, supermarkets only consume palm oil that is zero deforestation , which means that it was not planted where there was forest and the products say that.”
One of the biggest problems is that much of the demand for palm oil comes from China, India and Indonesia , where it is used for cooking and consumers do not have that awareness of the possible impact it can have on biodiversity, according to the ecologist. .
For Ocampo Peñuela, “as consumers we should have a responsible and educated use to know where the palm oil we are consuming is coming from”.