Peatlands are a type of wetlands forming a unique ecosystem , home to rare and unusual plants, wildlife and contain the most valuable natural store of the world’s soil carbon.
‘Peat’ refers to thick, muddy soil having high content of organic matter made up of dead and decomposing plants in water-logged conditions
Peatlands and Climate change:
Peatlands are vital: they are found in over 175 countries and are more widespread in Asia (38% of peatlands) and in North America (32%) followed by Europe (12%) and South America (11%). In their natural wet state , peatlands help minimize the risk of flooding and drought, and prevent seawater intrusion.
Why must we act to save them?
Majority of the world’s peatlands are intact, but peatlands are being drained, severely overexploited and damaged due to land converted for agriculture, burning and mining for fuel, among others.
When drained out, the underlying peat is exposed to air and the carbon it contains gets oxidized into carbon dioxide. As peatlands contain high carbon content (as high as 50%), they become tremendous emitters of methane and CO2 when disrupted.
Palm oil and its popularity world-wide:
Palm oil is naturally reddish in color and is a ‘miracle’ product used in everything from food to construction. The food industry is responsible for 72% world-wide usage of palm oil. Cosmetics and cleaning products usage are around 18% and biofuels and animal feed account for the rest 10% globally.
Commonly known as the oil palm, this crop is a large woody tree easy to grow in the tropics and highly profitable for farmers, even in difficult soils. The fruits from the oil palm are harvested when ripe (has a color of fiery orange and red) and its kernel deep inside is where palm oil is derived.
Palm oil is unique in that it survives the high temperatures involved in cooking, does not spoil easily and all products with palm oil have a long shelf life. All parts of the Palm oil tree are useful : oil can also be burned for fuel, and the kernel seeds left over after processing can be crushed and used to make concrete, and the ash left after burning the palm leaves, trunks and fibers can be used as a replacement for cement.
So, what is the exact problem?
Due to the high demand of palm oil, drainage of peatlands for palm oil cultivation and massive deforestation is resulting in emissions of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Adding to the disaster is the extinction of wildlife such as orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos in the tropical forests of the world.
Farmers produced 77 million tons of palm oil for the global market in 2020-21, and that is expected to grow to 108 million tons by 2024. Indonesia and Malaysia alone boast around 13 million hectares of oil palm plantation, almost half the world’s total. More than 75% of Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo national park, home to tigers, orangutans, and pygmy elephants, has been converted into illegal palm oil plantations. Globally, 193 critically endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species are threatened by palm oil production. For example, the decline of the Bornean Orangutan population by 60% within the last few decades is largely attributed to the loss of its peat swamp habitat.
Why is India in the spotlight and what are our alternatives?
India is the world’s single largest importer of palm oil and what happens to palm oil demand in India has a significant impact on the entire industry. As palm oil blends well with other oils and suits frying, Indian food specifically made in restaurants, hotels, low to middle-income households are the major consumers of palm oil. Apart from suitability for cooking, palm oil is cheaper when compared to other oils such as coconut oil, sunflower and soybean oils and can be easily imported from Malaysia, Indonesia etc. with shorter shipping times.
India imports around 95% of mostly crude palm oil and refining takes place in India. Most Indian consumers buy cheaper ‘loose’ palm oil and are unaware of the un-sustainable effects on production/processing of palm oil to the world’s remaining rainforests and its deforestation. Though we have policies such as NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation of people and local communities) , 58% of India’s palm oil imports are not covered by NDPE.
Palm oil is everywhere …
Palm oil is nearly impossible to avoid, and just as difficult to replace. Unfortunately, we do not have too many alternatives. Palm oil is found in everything from washing powder to toothpaste to shampoo to chocolates to chips.
Here are some sustainable ways that we as consumers can look at alternatives to palm oil products:
- Majority of eatables like biscuits, bread, cake, fast-food like instant noodles, chips etc. are made from palm oil. Look out for ingredients such as ‘palmates’, ’sulphates’, ’glyceryl’ , vegetable oils and try buy organic instead.
- Soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, cleaning detergents, make-up and cosmetics have palm-oil ingredients and try explore brands that are natural, sustainable, and made by ethical companies.
- Explore usage and rotation to natural oils like coconut, sunflower, rice bran , mustard oils or ghee in day to day cooking and avoid palm oil.
Just imagine, it takes thousands of years to build up peat, but a matter of minutes to release harmful CO2 when peatlands are drained. Urgent action worldwide is needed to protect, manage, and restore peatlands and due to a lack of awareness of the benefits of peatlands, damaged peatlands are accelerating a climate crisis by emitting an estimated 1.3 giga-tons of CO2 every year. The good news is that countries like Indonesia have planned a permanent stop on new forest clearing for palm plantations.
Awareness is key to understand the impact of agricultural commodities like palm oil, cocoa, coffee, rubber etc.. on forests and water bodies , and each of us must look for more sustainable ways to meet our food, fuel and cosmetic needs and be willing to pay slightly more money for products that are justifiable and do not hurt the planet.