I work as a social media specialist at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), and it has been just under a year since I stepped into the fascinating world of palm oil.
On the one hand, the industry holds great interest for its potential benefits on the other it is plagued by so much negative sentiment. From my first day on the job, I’ve seen a barrage of misinformation being pedaled online about the commodity. Outrage and negative headlines grab attention, and people are quick to jump to the blame game before understanding an issue.
As you can imagine, being in a controversial industry, my job involves informing, educating and correcting a lot of negative perceptions people online have of palm oil. Many times, I find it challenging to provide a meaningful response, especially with a 280-character limit, because of how complex the issues are.
Let me address some of the biggest misconceptions I notice online users, especially those on GAR’s social media feed, have about palm oil.
Myth 1: Palm oil is unhealthy
Palm oil provides a multitude of health benefits. It is naturally trans-fat-free and high in vitamin A – 15 to 30 times higher than that of carrots and tomatoes. Palm oil also contains tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are constituents of the antioxidant Vitamin E. These natural antioxidants act as scavengers of damaging oxygen free radicals. Recent advancements show their biological properties in protecting against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, oxidative stress and immune regulation. It is also one of the few naturally saturated vegetable fats that reduce low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) in the blood.
When we discuss palm oil, we also need to qualify the different fractions – the oil from different parts of the fruit (and even the kernel!). We must do this because each part (fraction) has different saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fatty acid content.
Palm olein, the liquid fraction of the fruit, commonly used as cooking oil, is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acid – same as olive oil. Palm stearin, the solid fraction of the fruit, is commonly used as margarine. Margarine is constantly compared to its dairy-based cousin, butter. As someone who loves to cook, yes butter is better for a richer taste and creamier texture. However, for the sake of this argument specifically on health, butter is not better since it contains three times the amount of saturated fats! In addition, margarine is vegan-friendly and even better for the environment—more differences between the two here.
Myth 2: Palm oil causes deforestation
Not all palm oil is grown the same way. In the past, farming techniques for palm oil did cause deforestation. However, the industry has evolved, and with new practices, sustainably grown palm oil is better for the environment than many other vegetable oil crops.
GAR is committed to producing palm oil responsibly and is actively working with our supply chains to eliminate outdated, unsustainable farming practices. GAR was one of the first major agribusinesses in the world to publish a Forest Conservation Policy in partnership with The Forest Trust (TFT). GAR has also mapped 72,000 hectares (an area equivalent to the size of Singapore) within our concession areas for conservation.
Many palm oil companies have also answered the call for more traceability and transparency in the supply chain. Work is happening across the sector. According to annual reports by Supply Change, the palm sector has made more Zero Deforestation Commitments than any other deforestation linked commodity, and done more to implement them
Myth 3: Palm oil violates human rights
In agribusinesses, social issues are harder to detect and verify than environmental ones. As my boss, Anita Neville, points out, “Social issues, unfortunately, do not show up on satellite imagery and you cannot send a drone in to check on human conditions particularly.” They can also be subjective; for example, if a child was helping his father on their family plantation over school holidays, would it be considered chores, or child labour?
Larger companies like us have commitments in place such as;
- Free, Prior, and Informed Consent that allows indigenous communities to have a say in developing/conserving land
- Extensive labour policies to ensure no forced/child labour
- Initiatives supporting gender equality and inclusion in the workplace
But not all farmers are aware of or have the capacity to implement changes that might cost more money. The key is to work with our supply chains, especially with the small farmers, to ensure they can make sustainable changes to their practices, without compromising their livelihoods.
I recall the day I received the invitation from GAR to apply for this job a year ago. It was almost serendipitous, as I had just watched Miss Sloane (a rather riveting drama about a fictional lobbyist), and the opening of the movie started with our heroine thick in a situation navigating the complexities of the palm oil industry. Little did I know that I would be a real-life Miss Sloane, albeit mostly online.
After being here for almost a year, I have a newfound respect for the people who work in this complex and largely misunderstood industry. Despite the amount of effort from responsible palm oil growers to make this crop environmentally sustainable, the industry can’t seem to shake off the stigma of its past, especially online, where it gets so much negativity from keyboard warriors.
As responsible netizens, I hope that instead of carelessly sharing un-researched views, we take the time to fact-check and understand the complexity of issues – palm oil or otherwise – before clicking that very tempting “like” button.
Geraldine Lim is a Social Media Specialist at Golden Agri-Resources. She lives and breathes all things internet. When she is not online, she can be found cooking up her next gastronomical adventure in the kitchen.