The Palm Oil Diaries: My journey below the forest canopy of half-truths
I’m a filmmaker and the presenter of a new documentary on palm oil, called Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries.
I wanted to explore what is happening in the African and Latin American countries that produce palm oil, but don’t hit the headlines. I also wanted to find out the health impact of eating palm oil, using my own body.
Travelling across the equator and eating hundreds of palm oil muffins in the name of science, I was left with two troubling conclusions: Firstly, without pressure from consumers, terrible palm oil practices will thrive across the tropical world.
Secondly, and paradoxically, most consumers have no idea why they should or shouldn’t eat palm oil.
In palm oil producing countries that I visited bad practices are poorly regulated against or simply ignored.
Cameroon: Minimal penalties
Cameroon, the first country I visited, is labelled ‘the new frontier’ for palm plantation expansion by environmentalists due to its vast, untapped forests. Foreign companies are rushing to invest in new concessions in Cameroon as a result.
The problem is that when these companies don’t do environmental impact assessments or break eco-regulations they face minimal penalties imposed by Cameroon’s government.
The government delegate in the south west region that I visited said companies could be fined a maximum, in any one year, of approximately €7700 for breaking environmental regulations; hardly a deterrent.
Guatemala: Human rights issues
Meanwhile Guatemala, a country that has increased palm oil production several fold in the last decade, has major palm oil-related human rights issues.
Indigenous Mayan communities that I visited are being coerced into selling their land.
Contaminated run-off water from plantations is ruining what is left of their crops, causing starvation and sickness. The Mayans I met compare their current plight with the genocide they faced in the 1980s during a 36-year civil war.
In a country where a powerful elite control everything from industry to politics, little change is likely to come through domestic campaigns to clean up Guatemala’s palm oil industry.
Only international pressure from consumers will force good practices: consumers lobby their food manufacturers and, in turn, food manufacturers put pressure on their suppliers. This does already happen, but not on a meaningful scale.
Consumer confusion: Health & the environment
The difficulty is palm oil is an ingredient and not something we buy as a finished product – unlike chocolate or coffee. Therefore, most consumers don’t realise the impact they can have.
Moreover, most consumers that are aware of palm oil only know about deforestation in Indonesia and endangered orangutans. Products that do highlight they are ‘palm oil free’ on their packaging, like some peanut butters, are unintentionally giving a confusing message.
The consumers I’ve spoken to are not sure why palm oil is ‘bad’. Is it environmental reasons or, given the label is on a food product, is it to do with health?
I’m in no doubt that palm oil is not particularly healthy after eating three muffins a day containing palm oil for six weeks to mimic one half of an experiment done by scientists at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.
The scientists found that palm oil compared unfavourably with sunflower oil. Personally, I put on 60% body fat, likely around my liver and vital organs, in just six weeks. Years of overeating palm oil would probably cause cirrhosis of the liver, the scientists said.
Consumers should be educated that palm oil isn’t very healthy and that only sustainable palm oil should be consumed. But ‘palm oil free’ products promote the message that palm oil should be avoided at all costs and this isn’t right.
Without engaging consumers in this two-part message – on health and the issues affecting palm-producing countries - bad palm oil companies will prosper and good palm oil companies will suffer.
Palm oil producers I met in Colombia, for example, are frustrated that they are being criticised for killing orangutans, despite following sustainability guidelines and despite the fact that orangutans don’t live in Colombia!
Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries is available for purchase here.
Michael Dorgan is a British presenter, director and producer at Go Forth Films.