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March 17, 2024 6 mins

Palm oil is in lots of foods, cosmetics, and household products -- and that's a very serious thing. Learn the problems (and solutions) that palm oil presents in this classic episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/conservation/issues/palm-oil-is-everywhere-heres-why-that-matters.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
I'm lourn bogle Bomb, and today's episode is a classic
from our archives. In this one, we're talking about palm oil,
some varieties of which have become ubiquitous in manufactured products,
which isn't great. Here's why, Hey brain Stuff, I'm Lourenvogo Bomb.

(00:25):
And you might not know what palm oil is, but
chances are, without realizing it, you consume it in some
form or many different ones every day. It's an ingredient
in about half of all packaged products sold at the supermarket,
from instant noodles and ice cream to pizza and packaged bread,
and it's also found in lipstick, soap, shampoo, and detergent.
In other countries, it's heavily used as a biofuel for

(00:47):
cars and trucks. Indeed, the world consumed seventy five point
eight million tons that's about sixty eight point eight million
metric tons of palm oil in twenty seventeen alone, which
amounted to more than a third of all of the
vegetable oils used on the planet. Palm Oil's ubiquitous presence
and the world's growing consumption of it has a lot
of environmental activists deeply worried. The Union of Concerned Scientists,

(01:10):
for example, warns that cultivation of the oil palm tree,
which produces the fruit from which palm oil is extracted,
is driving the cutting down and burning of tropical rainforests
in Southeast Asia, which is increasing health risks from pollution
and pumping planet warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as
well as driving animals such as orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and
elephants from their habitats. So what is palm oil anyway,

(01:33):
and how did it get to be so ubiquitous in
modern civilization? It wasn't always that way. Palm Oil is
produced from the fruit of the oil palm tree, which
is native to West Africa for centuries. It's been part
of the traditional diet in that region as a source
of fat and other nutrients, and is utilized as a
cooking oil and an ingredient in folk medicines. While the
palm oil it's processed for use in products is tasteless,

(01:54):
palm oil grown in the traditional fashion in West Africa
actually has an intense taste. It's an ingredied and soups
and other dishes. Farmers planted it in forests as both
part of agriculture and forestry, but the oil palm didn't
stay in Africa. Europeans brought the oil palm to Southeast
Asia in the eighteen hundreds and tried growing it on plantations,
but it didn't start catching on in a big way

(02:16):
until the mid nineteen sixties. One big booster was the
World Bank, which spent nearly one billion dollars to fund
oil palm cultivation in an effort to promote economic development
and lift people in rural areas out of poverty. About
half of that money went to fund a series of
projects in Indonesia, which became the world's biggest producer. Between
the nineteen sixties and the two thousands, the amount of

(02:37):
land devoted to growing oil palm cultivation increased eightfold and
spread to tropical areas across the globe. We spoke with
Jeff Connet, director of Friends of the Earth's International Forests Program,
which works to protect the rights of forest dependent peoples
by addressing the economic issues driving forest destruction. He explained
the plant was improved and hybridized, and varieties were developed

(02:58):
that grew very well in large monoch culture plantations, palm
oil became a lucrative crop to grow. It's efficient in
terms of crop yield per acre of land. Additionally, new
uses were developed. Cotton said it's good for replacing margarine
in that it's got a high melting point and when
it's refined it has no flavor that makes it good
for baking. In the mid two thousands, after the US

(03:19):
Food and Drug Administration started requiring the listing of transfats
on nutrition labels because they were linked to heart disease,
processed food manufacturers began looking to palm oil as a
trans fat free alternative. Then, around the same time, the
US and other Western nations drafted environmental laws encouraging the
use of vegetable oils such as palm oil as fuel
as a way to reduce carbon dioxide output and slow

(03:41):
global warming. But that well intentioned move backfired because the
clearing and burning of forests for palm oil cultivation actually
led to the release of massive amounts of carbon that
had been stored in the peat on forest floors. Connon
explained oil palm trees often grow best in places where
rainforests were It's definitely if factor in deforestation. Oil palm

(04:02):
cultivation brought other problems as well. Monoculture cultivation is needed
to produce a profit, and that wears out the soil
after twenty five or thirty years, Content said, leaving the
land unusable without intense and expensive effort. And while the
palm oil industry provides employment for millions of people, it's
also been plagued by accusations of human rights abuses, including
the use of child workers. A December twenty eighteen article

(04:25):
in Sierra Magazine, for example, describes Guatemalans working sixteen hour
days on oil palm plantations and suggests that use of
oil palm cultivation contributes to food scarcity because it's taking
up land where local farmers otherwise could be growing corn, beans, rice,
and other subsistence crops. In response to the growing criticism
of palm oil, various stakeholders, agricultural producers, manufacturers who use

(04:47):
palm oil in products, banks and investors, and some environmental organizations,
among others, has started a movement to promote sustainable palm oil.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, founded in two thousand
and four, has established ac of principles, which includes avoiding
use of forests that provide habitat to endangered species, reduction
in the use of pesticides and burning to clear land,

(05:07):
fair treatment of workers according to local and international labor standards,
and consulting with local communities before new plantations are developed.
According to the rspo's website, nineteen percent of global palm
oil production is now certified as sustainable. But in addition
to promoting sustainability, it's crucial to stop the growth of
oil palm cultivation and reduce the amount of land devoted

(05:29):
to it. Consumers can help drive such change, Connett said,
because most palm oil in the US is found in
junk food and cosmetics, the best way to avoid it
is to not eat junk food. Today's episode is based
on the article palm oil is Everywhere, Here's why that

(05:50):
Matters on how stuffworks dot Com, written by Patrick J. Higer.
Brain Stuff is production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how
Stuffworks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klaying. For
more podcasts my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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