A damaging oil is hiding in our houses, and scientists want urgent solutions

Scientists want us to look at alternatives to palm oil as our population grows.

Scientists want us to look at alternatives to palm oil as our population grows. Photo: TND/Getty

It’s in almost everything, and you wouldn’t even know it.

From ice cream and soap to pizza dough, lipstick and detergent, palm oil is hidden inside a huge range of food items and household products.

And our mass consumption of it is doing serious damage to the planet.

Now, a new study by the University of Queensland says it’s time we look at other alternatives, including the trade-offs of using other vegetable oil crops, to plan for a more sustainable future.

More palm oil, more problems

Palm oil, an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world.

Most of it comes from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in south-east Asia, as well as South America and parts of Africa.

We’ve come to rely on palm oil so much that an estimated half of all packaged products contain it, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Our addiction is causing mass deforestation of tropical forests, declines in biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

According to the report, oil palm expansion has directly contributed to a staggering 50 per cent of deforestation in Malaysian Borneo.

Species threatened by oil palm include orangutans, gibbons and tigers.

The Bornean Orangutan is now critically endangered. Photo: Getty

And it’s not only animals and the environment we need to worry about.

“Industrial oil palm expansion by large multinational and national companies is also often associated with social problems, such as land grabbing and conflicts, labour exploitation, social inequity and declines in village-level wellbeing,” the study’s authors wrote.

But before we move to alternative oils instead, Australian scientists and international experts say we must study our options carefully.

As our global population grows, demand for vegetable oils is expected to leap by 46 per cent by 2050.

We need to get it right.

“Meeting this demand through additional expansion of oil palm versus other vegetable oil crops will lead to substantial differential effects on biodiversity, food security, climate change, land degradation and livelihoods,” they wrote.

Other major oil crops include soybean, rapeseed, cotton, groundnuts or peanuts, sunflower, coconut, maize and olive.

Maize plants are harvested in Germany, where they are fermented to produce methane-rich biogas. Photo: Getty

No matter what we use, it will come at a cost.

One benefit of using palm oil, the scientists say, is that it generally produces more oil per area than other oil crops.

Some argue it could be used to replace fossil fuels and meet climate action goals like the Paris Agreement, though there is resistance from the European Union and NGOs over deforestation.

To move toward a greener future, the researchers say we must urgently conduct more research into the impacts and trade-offs of using other vegetable oil crops than palm oil.

“In a world with finite land and growing demands, we must consider global demands for food, fuel and industrial uses hand in hand with environmental conservation objectives,” they say.

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