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The politics of feed stock – in search of a palm free cosmetic.

August 14, 2013

OK so I am the first to admit that when it comes to palm oil  I am all of the below:

  • Fascinated by the palm vs no palm debate.
  • Concerned about the environmental impact that our non-essential human purchases and whims have on the environment.
  • Am not an environmental scientist and have limited time/ resources/ background knowledge to research the agricultural side of this debate but….
  • Still slightly bias towards palm but open to the idea that there are other options out there.
  • Interested in the global balance of equity (fairness) and wealth (opportunity).

That is not a disclaimer, it is fact.  I am trying to work through, question, analyse and feel my way towards an action plan that ticks as many boxes as is practical without loosing focus on the main issue – once virgin forest is gone it is gone. Monoculture plantations are not animal/ bird/ bee etc friendly.

So, where next.

I sit and listen as many people come to me for ‘palm free’ products.  When I say many I mean enough to say that there is a trend but not enough to displace those looking for Organic which is generally about 10% of my customer base – on that basis I’d estimate it to be around 1-2%.  Out of the remaining 88 ish % 3/4 want all-natural and the other 1/4 are OK with most things as long as the product works and isn’t classified as toxic.

On that basis I generally write, talk and think about palm more than it is worth in terms of my $$$.  It is possible to be a cosmetic chemist, make bucket loads of money (if you are lucky OR good OR in some cases both) without scratching the surface of any of these issues.  You can just use whatever does the job, get a good formula and take your pay check.   I am not that chemist and I stay up late in the night trying to understand this and other issues because I want to. That’s all.

With that in mind I want to work through an example of an emulsifier that I’ve recently been playing with that is palm oil free.  I made a recipe with this the other day and it looks to be stable and effective so potentially a great base for anyone out there who wants to tick that box!

The emulsifier in mind is glyceryl stearyl citrate.  

The emulsifier is made from rapeseed oil (and a bit of processing) and is 100% palm free.

That makes it very special for the palm free emulsion seeker as there are currently very few options open to them and as such I’ve seen many just opt for oil-only moisturisers.  That is OK and some people love oils on their face but I’m not one of them.  I actually find oil only moisturisers quite itchy and I always feel dirty after applying them.  I would rather have a rich cream.  Another reason why I’m interested in this I guess……

So, let’s look at a few bits of information I have found about the feedstock that makes glyceryl stearyl citrate.

  • Rapeseed is grown for its oil and meal and it is possible to grow a crop with a 40% oil yield. That is huge when compared to the less than 20% that you get with soy.
  • Rapeseed is a good ground cover crop that helps prevent soil erosion
  • It is suited to the western climate needing lowish humidity with well-drained, non salty  soil pH 5.5-8.3 and a temperate climate with few frosts during flowering season and limited periods of high temps – 30C plus  (which lowers the yield)
  • Rapeseed grows well in Western China (was the number 1 producer but low global prices, low quality and poor automation are making this crop less attractive),  North India (Rajasthan mainly) , EU and some activity in North America.
  • Rapeseed is a commodity feedstock grown for industrial purposes and as such is heavily price sensitive.  It is highly likely to be sprayed to protect the crop.

Hang on.  I remember that!


So I started to look at spraying and how that might affect the ‘green-status’ of this palm alternative.

I grew up in the agricultural heartland of Great Britain surrounded by the itchy, hayfever-making blossoms of Rapeseed.  I remember the crop spraying days.  I remember the smell and the haze.

On May 10th, 2013 Reuters ran s short story about this entitled ‘EU pesticide ban to save bees may curb rapeseed production‘.

It went on to say that rapeseed production is likely to fall in the EU after shareholders voted to ‘save the bees’ by banning three pesticides usually used to bolster the crop.  The family of pesticides are neonicotinoids – a family that has been linked to declining bee populations.

So, while palm is damaging the big end of the food chain is Rapeseed damaging the small?  


Then I looked at yields per hectare as I figure that a reasonable way to determine how efficient a use of land rapeseed is all other things being equal and found that while it isn’t too bad, it isn’t amazingly productive. Not as productive as palm or coconut…..

OIl pie chart

oil production per hectare

In fact looking at those tables and realising what those figures mean makes me more worried about the future than ever – especially if that is a palm free future and I know we are focusing on Rapeseed because of my emulsifier example but look at Soy!  Soy takes up 43% of oil producing land and produces only 27% of oil!!!!!  Palm – 5% of land for 34% of oil.   Please tell me that I am not the only one that sees this?


And then I thought about global equity.

The oils which our western conscience tells us are ‘green’ ‘clean’ and ‘environmentally pristine’ are all suited to growing in a dryer more temperate climate.  A climate that you find in the USA, Europe, Northern China, Russia and India. These oils are kept cost-effective by mass farming, huge fields that can be ploughed over with a monster truck sized harvester – equipment that is well established in Europe and the USA but not so in India and China. Well, not at the moment anyway.

Feedstock oil is a money game and keeping the money flowing is their global language.


And about money and the need for efficiency in the supply chain and what that actually means.

Indonesia and Malaysia are getting rich from a richly productive oil in a market where money talks.  Yes they care about the environment but maybe there is a bit of the ‘a little more can’t hurt’ mentality going on?  I don’t know.  We (other countries) are NOT setting a good example.  We are killing our bees and without them NOTHING will grow.

However, it is not just the west that is killing pollinators.


Then I came back to pollinators again – It is all about the bees it seems.

give bees a chance

A story on SciDevNet from May 2012  discussed pesticides as a key reason that Palm crops were failing across Ghana.  Pesticides that were killing the pollinators.  So what happens in Asia and in particular in Indonesia and Malaysia?

In Malaysia this year (January) the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil held its final meeting to decide on its principles – really? I thought that was done years ago but there you go!  During that meeting the use of a pesticide Paraquat was discussed and more specifically the terrible harm that it has caused to the women and children often used to distribute it.  This pesticide is banned in the EU and Switzerland which is odd as that is where it comes from but this neurotoxin is still being used across the region.  Apparently use of these pesticides is able to continue under RSPO when ‘justified’.  I am not impressed by this at all.

So I conclude with sadness that: 

Orang Utans are not the biggest part of the Palm Oil problem although Orang Utans and top-of-the-food-chain biodiversity is hugely important.

Land use is not the biggest part of the problem although land use and more specifically change of land use is hugely important.

It is the business of producing cheap cash crop oil that is destroying the pollinators which in turn will crash the food chain and everything else that goes with it. 

So what can we do?

Keep investigating, sharing and learning:  

Well I, for one wish to dig deeper into the pollinator issue and the use of pesticides for all feedstock crops as this rate determining step seems now to be of critical importance as HOW we get to these large yields is key to sustainability. If anyone can help with that I’d love to hear from you.

Stop swapping and start stopping:

We can all do ourselves a favour and stop swapping and start stopping when it comes to consumption of excesses of stuff – be it produced from palm, corn, cotton or rapeseed.  Boycotting one in favour of another isn’t solving or changing anything and is in fact just pushing the problem to another location while punishing people and economies outside of the new and trendy crop ‘climate zone’.  That is just stupid.


The whole point of me doing this thinking in public so to speak is to get to the bottom of this issue (in my mind) so that I can focus my energy and attention to the core issue.  Every time I write and research I uncover another piece of the puzzle.  I accept that I may, like other google-researchers place undue importance to one or another detail while missing something else and that’s why I am not going to start a lobby group any time soon.   I don’t know enough, haven’t discussed this with enough people who do know more and haven’t got a full picture YET.   However, what I have got is a better understanding of the global oil market, the push and pull factors, the socio-economics, the agricultural reality and the pressure points.  And that has been very interesting indeed.

And what about a palm free moisturiser?

Well look, my conclusion is this.  Both palm and rapeseed are contributing to the loss of pollinators but the rapeseed being in a mature market is better placed to stop being naughty and ‘grow up’.  Its customers can possibly pay more for the less-productive oil and maybe everything will be rosy but it isn’t rosy now.  Palm oil is still in its economic youth and like most youths it is making some mistakes, caring less about the future than the present and letting the good times roll.

So you can decide what is worse – an adult in the midst of a mid-lilfe crisis  or a youthful party animal?

Is there even an answer to that…..

Happy thinking.

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