Odds are, if you pick up any processed snack food, cleaning product or cosmetic product inside your home right now, it will probably contain palm oil, or a palm-oil derivative. Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is nearly ubiquitous in common household products. It contains no trans fats, which makes it a more attractive option for American consumers who are thinking about healthier food choices. It’s also a high-yield, efficient crop.

However, there’s a darker side to this pervasive ingredient. Palm oil plantations cause the destruction of rainforests, lead to the decline in endangered species such as orangutans and tigers, release a large amount of carbon pollution through the clearing of rainforests by fire, and displace indigenous people from their native lands.

Kristen Morrow, a Ph.D. student in Integrative Conservation and Anthropology, is looking to raise awareness on campus and in the community of the problems caused by palm oil production.

“The idea is to help [UGA Campus Dining Services and Vending] get a better understanding, with regards to palm oil sustainability, where do we stand as an institution and what changes we can make.” - Kristen Morrow. 

Morrow’s Campus Sustainability Grant project has two objectives: to work with Campus Dining Services and Vending to identify products that contain palm oil and provide a list of alternative suggestions, and to conduct research and host focus groups on student awareness of palm oil. Eventually, the project will lead to an outreach initiative involving social media, film screenings, tabling at events and more.

“The important thing to know about our project is it’s not a boycott of palm oil because to do so is unrealistic. It’s a globally important commodity and a lot of people’s livelihoods depend on the production of that product,” Morrow said. “But there are certain ways to consume palm oil more sustainably than others.”

Morrow is working with a team of undergraduate students to comb through UGA’s food products to discover the extent to which palm oil is present on campus.

“We’re really grateful that [UGA Dining Services] is working with us and doing this because it’s a really large database of products that they have … and often switching to more sustainably sourced products is more expensive,” Morrow said. “The idea is to help them get a better understanding, with regards to palm oil sustainability, where do we stand as an institution and what changes we can make.”

For individual consumers, it can be difficult to identify products with palm oil because the oil can go by hundreds of different names. Sometimes, palm oil can even just be labeled as vegetable oil, making it challenging to avoid using palm oil even if you’re being vigilant.

Nevertheless, Morrow stressed the importance of taking incremental steps and making an effort to make sustainable choices when possible.

“My approach to the issue is to try and be as pragmatic as possible ... where do we stand, where can we make incremental improvements and what’s the easiest way to do that to make ourselves more sustainable and provide better options to our consumers,” Morrow said.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that boycotting palm oil and switching to a different ingredient such as coconut oil might actually be worse for the environment. Palm oil is a high-yield, efficient crop because it produces a large amount of oil per unit of land. The conversation around palm oil has shifted from boycotting the crop to finding ways to grow it more sustainably.

“Conservation and sustainability issues involve really hard trade-offs and really powerful influences like major global corporations and an entire western hemisphere that wants to consume processed food that is most cheaply produced with palm oil,” Morrow said. “In the shorter term of coping with these issues, the solution needs to be focused on making palm oil sustainable.”

One place to start making more sustainable choices is through purchasing products that have the RSPO label. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an organization that assesses products on a set of environmental and social criteria and issues certifications to companies that meet these standards. Companies can use the RSPO label to indicate that the palm oil used in their products is sustainably sourced.

“If companies receive pressure from consumers [saying] ‘I only want to buy your products if it has sustainably sourced palm oil,’ that’s where change can start to happen,” Morrow said.

Although the issue of palm oil production may seem complex, helping to conserve and protect the wildlife and people who are harmed by the palm oil industry starts with providing education on the topic and encouraging sustainable choices when they’re feasible.

Written by Jordan Meaker