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This content is taken from the EIT Food, University of Reading & European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)'s online course, Engaging with Controversies in the Food System. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds Good evening. On tonight’s programme, we’re looking at the controversy surrounding palm oil.

Skip to 0 minutes and 33 seconds What do lipstick, pizza dough, ice cream, soap, chocolate, margarine, shampoo, and hundreds of other domestic and packaged products have in common? They all contain palm oil. Palm oil is, in fact, the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet. Why do so many products contain palm oil? Well, firstly, it’s an incredibly versatile oil. And secondly, the plant itself produces more oil per hectare than any of the alternatives, such as oilseed rape and soya. But if palm oil is so useful, what’s the problem? Well, it’s all to do with scale. The rapid global expansion of palm oil production has led to deforestation and the destruction of peatlands, notably in Southeast Asia and in South America.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds Indonesia and Malaysia alone produce about 85% of the world’s harvest. Palm oil production also contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, to human rights violations, and to the loss of biodiversity by putting pressure on some of the planet’s most highly endangered habitats and species, including the already critically endangered orangutan. Perhaps higher palm oil yields through technical innovation and agricultural intensification would ultimately decrease the pressure to clear more forest land. On the other hand, the apparently insatiable global market for palm oil could cause what one researcher has referred to as a green tidal wave of palm oil expansion.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds The industry knows it has a poor reputation and has tried to respond by establishing the roundtable on sustainable palm oil, but the jury is still out on just how successful this is, not least because some 40% of palm oil is produced by smallholders who are difficult to reach with such initiatives. So even as the environmental case against it grows stronger, the palm oil business is booming as never before, and virtually all consumers face a sustained catch-22 dilemma.

Newsreel: Palm oil

This mock news video introduces the second controversy you’ll be exploring on this course: palm oil. The environmental and societal problems caused by palm oil production are making headlines across the globe as the demand for products containing it increases exponentially. There are many complex problems to resolve with this issue and we’ll introduce you to some of them in later Steps.

Welcome to Week 2

This week we will be taking an in-depth look at the complex controversy of palm oil. We’ll start by introducing you to this tropical crop and explaining why its so useful before running through the issues at stake. You’ll discover that although the expansion of palm oil plantations is directly responsible for depriving people of their livelihoods, destroying tropical forests and damaging natural diversity, boycotting products containing it is not the solution. You’ll hear the perspectives of various stakeholders: a government, a lobbying organisation, a local action organisation and a food company before having a chance to reflect on the controversy yourself and form your own opinions about what needs to be done.

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This video is from the free online course:

Engaging with Controversies in the Food System

EIT Food

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