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Palm oil is cheap and ubiquitous.
It's used in thousands of everyday products
and is the most widely consumed vegetable oil
on the planet.
You can get a kilo of palm oil for just $2.
But its usage has become unsurprisingly controversial,
as huge areas of rainforest
have been cut down or burned
to make way for palm plantations.
So why is this oil still so cheaply
and readily available?
Palm oil is in everything,
from chocolate to bread,
instant noodles to shampoo.
And without even really thinking about it,
globally, we each consume, on average,
about 8 kilos of palm oil every year.
But even if you look through the ingredients
of your product,
you may not be able to spot it.
Because written on the back label,
you could see any of these.
These days, Indonesia and Malaysia make up
85% of all palm oil production.
But the oil palm species used actually originated
in West Africa.
The trees were introduced to Malaysia in 1875,
but for 100 years, something was missing.
For years, the flowers were pollinated by hand,
requiring hundreds of workers
and limiting efficiency.
Until, in 1981, African palm weevils
were introduced to the country.
These little beetles pollinated the plants
with no extra work from humans,
and, suddenly, palm oil yields boomed.
Since this, palm oil's popularity
has done nothing but rise.
Demand spiked again in the '90s,
as companies suddenly realized
the negative health implications
of the trans fats found in many processed products
and replaced them with palm oil.
And as ultra-processed foods increased,
so did the use of the oil.
But this incredible rise came at a cost.
The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations
has led to the destruction of huge areas
of tropical rainforest,
creating dangerous CO2 emissions
and destroying the remaining habitats
of already endangered species.
Dan Strechay: It's extremely cheap.
It's shelf-stable.
It has natural preservative qualities.
It is a really good vegetable oil,
but the fact is, it has been grown
in a way that's caused a lot of environmental damage
and has also impacted communities
and the workers that have been employed
to harvest the material.
Narrator: Seeing the devastation caused,
your first instinct might be to cut out palm oil completely.
But searching for an alternative
might actually make things worse.
Palm oil is so efficient
that using an alternative oil
would require up to 10 times the land to grow.
This efficiency is the main reason the oil is so cheap.
Oil palm trees are evergreen and perennial.
They produce oil all year round
and can happily grow in soils that many other plants can't.
NGOs and companies from around the world
came together to set up
the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
in 2004 to create a set of criteria
to grow this crop sustainably.
But it's only since 2018
that the Roundtable has embraced
the high carbon stock approach,
a system that helps identify valuable areas of forest
and keeps the palm oil they certify
completely deforestation-free.
Strechay: The fact is, it's just a plant.
It's how and where we've done it
and how we've grown it that causes the problem,
but that means that it's a human problem.
We created the issue.
That means that we also have the ability
to solve that issue, to fix that issue.
Narrator: Fixing this problem
isn't going to be easy, though.
Joss Lyons-White: There are numerous barriers that exist
for companies trying to implement
zero-deforestation commitments.
So, one of those is the fact
that you have highly complex supply chains,
and it's difficult to know exactly
where your palm oil is coming from.
Another one is that you have varying levels
of government support
in different regions that produce palm oil.
And the extent of government support,
it plays an important role
in whether a company can produce
without deforestation, for complex reasons.
Narrator: So, are we doing enough?
The Roundtable now certifies about 19900:04:29,602 --> 00:04:32,522 of palm oil worldwide, but getting to this point
has been a long, slow process,
and we're running out of time.
Kristjan Jespersen: Critically, global consumption
for palm oil will invariably increase
until 2050 as we approach 9.6 billion people.
Lyons-White: You also have to set the persistence
of large markets, such as China and India,
where there is much more of an emphasis on price
rather than the sustainability profile of the product,
and this means that if you're a manufacturer, say,
and you're trying to buy palm oil
and encourage your suppliers
to make sure that their production is deforestation-free,
you have limited leverage
because they always have an alternative market
they can sell into.
So there are these challenges
with implementing a commitment to zero deforestation,
which make it very difficult to achieve.
Narrator: India, China, and Indonesia now account
for nearly 40% of all palm oil consumed,
and it looks like palm oil is going to remain cheap
for a while longer,
but the cost to the planet could be devastating.
But it's not just palm oil that's the problem.
Lyons-White: Palm oil still pales in comparison
in terms of its contribution to deforestation.
It pales in comparison with cattle and beef products,
which some estimates indicate may be responsible
for as much as a quarter of all tropical deforestation.
Narrator: Global Canopy published a list of 500
companies and financial institutions
linked to tropical deforestation from soy,
palm, cattle, and timber.
Only half of these companies have made zero deforestation
a commitment by 2020.
And not a single one of these companies
is on track to make this target.
Global Canopy also says that,
despite the commitments that are being made,
evidence shows that rates of commodity-driven deforestation
have not decreased since 2001.
Strechay: Whether it's palm, soy, beef, leather,
all ingredients, companies have a responsibility
not to wait for the consumer to make the demand.
They have a responsibility
to do it before the consumer demands.
Any forest that's being cleared as we face
what many would call a climate crisis is too much.
So what we know we have to do
is we have to take a very hard look
at how we consume things,
why we're consuming it,
and how we go about
sourcing and growing our materials
like palm oil or soy, beef, or cotton.
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Why Palm Oil Is So Cheap

20 Folder Collection
jeremy.wang published on March 30, 2020
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