We all know that crude oil and fossil fuels are detrimental to the environment, especially when burned, but they aren’t the only oils that do damage to the planet. What other oils should we be avoiding and what do we need to do to phase out these cooking ingredients that are harming our home planet?
Globally, we produce more than 64 million metric tons of palm oil a year. It’s one of the most common oils in food products and cosmetics — and it’s one of the worst options for the planet. Palm oil farmers burn upwards of 300 football fields worth of rainforest every hour to make room to keep up with global demand, releasing thousands of tons of greenhouse gasses, killing animals and destroying local ecosystems.
Soybean oil is often thought of as a healthy alternative to palm oil — it contains less saturated fat, making it safer to consume. This doesn’t make it any better for the planet, though. The 53 million metric tons of soybean oil we produce globally every year is decimating South American rain forests.
These are two of the most common oils in the world and farming the plants to create these ingredients is destroying the rain forests and contributing millions of tons of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.
Phasing Them Out
The European Union has made their opinion on palm oil, at least, clear. In March of 2019, the European Commission decided to ban the use of palm oil in biofuel. Biofuels are more efficient and sustainable than fossil fuels, but only if they’re manufactured from renewable sources like food waste. Palm oil-based biofuels aren’t sustainable because of the damage they cause to the environment.
There is also the concern that with a growing population that will likely reach 10 billion by 2050, biofuel crops are being grown in areas that could otherwise be used for food production. In 2016, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 815 million people were living with chronic undernourishment. That’s 10.7% of the world’s population at the time. If we continue to utilize fertile farmland to grow palm oil and other biofuels, that number will continue to grow as the population does.
On a small scale, individual consumers can start to make a difference by choosing alternative products that either use palm oil that is grown sustainably or fair trade or by switching to products that don’t contain any palm oil. For cooking, that means using coconut, rapeseed (canola), or sunflower oils. All of these options provide flavour in a healthier manner while protecting the environment.
For beauty products, look for products that contain natural glycerine. Synthetic glycerine contains petroleum, propylene and chlorine, but natural glycerine has been used since the late 1700s, has more than 1500 uses and is better for your skin than palm oil-based products.
Looking Toward the Future
Palm and soybean oil might be the most common oils available for cooking and biofuel production, but they’re also the most harmful to the environment. If you’re concerned about your environmental impact, you can start by removing food and beauty products that utilize palm oil from your home. The EU palm oil ban is a broad first step but unless consumers change their buying habits, the palm oil industry will continue to thrive — and will continue to destroy South American rain forests. Look for healthier, fair-trade oils for your cooking, and seek out beauty products that use natural glycerine instead of palm oil. We need to hit these companies where it hurts — in the wallet — to start making a change to protect our planet.