Crackers, candy, shampoo, ice cream, soap, chocolate, toothpaste, margarine, protein and granola bars, make-up, laundry detergent, and biofuel. What do these everyday household items and products all have in common? Answer: They all contain palm oil. This ingredient is found in nearly all packaged and processed foods on the market and is used in many personal hygiene and cosmetic products. In fact, it is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet! It is so ingrained into our daily lives, going an entire day without using the oil is virtually impossible.
The African oil palm fruit produces this unique oil. It is used so abundantly because of its truly remarkable chemical properties. Palm oil:
As the name suggests, this plant is native to Africa. Interestingly, it is now chiefly cultivated for human use in Asia. Indonesia and Malaysia produce a vast majority of the world’s palm oil, 84% collectively! These two nations are the main producers partly due to their geographical location; oil palm grows in a very narrow range of only 10 degrees north and south of the equator. Also, the crop has economical and practical potential. In Asian nations, palm oil is a very common cooking oil and biofuel. Today, developing nations able to grow the plant depend on this commodity to alleviate poverty. Additionally, Indonesia and Malaysia receive international pressure to produce this crop at unsustainable rates. The oil’s potential is undeniable. However, its large-scale production comes with ecological, agricultural, and economic costs.
Image courtesy of IUCN
To meet ever-increasing global demands for this valuable oil, rainforests in Asia are burned and converted to oil palm crops at alarming rates. This deforestation results in habitat loss for many endemic species in the area and threatens them with extinction. According to the IUCN, “193 critically endangered, endangered, and vulnerable species have palm oil production as one of their main threats”. One of the most affected animals is the orangutan. All three species of orangutan are considered critically endangered. There are only an estimated 100,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild. Even more endangered are the Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutan with only 14,000 and 800 individuals remaining respectively. Nearly 80% of usable orangutan habitat has been lost to deforestation. This conversion of land generates large amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Furthermore, production and processing of African palms result in methane emissions, a compound with high global warming potential. These consequences have global impacts that transcend beyond the two Asian nations that predominantly cultivate the plant. Carbon emissions contribute to global warming and biodiversity loss which negatively impact all life on Earth - animal and human.
Extensive quantities of African palms are needed to fulfill the high demand for palm oil, resulting in vast expanses of a single tree species. These large monoculture croplands decrease the amount of nutrients entering the ecosystem relative to the incredibly diverse rainforests they replace. Additional issues arise from the large amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and water needed to maintain these uniform fields. These additives contaminate nearby soil and water supplies, impacting the quality of life for locals. In addition to rainforests, the creation of land suitable for oil palms is also responsible for the loss of peatland. Peatlands are invaluable wetland habitats for animals and humans alike. Wetlands act as natural filtration systems for water, prevent flooding, and help combat global warming by sequestering greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Due to its prevalence, palm oil production results in many human-rights issues as well. Large-scale land acquisition to meet production needs has forcibly relocated subsistence farmers and displaced indigenous people in countries worldwide. Privatization of many farms has made monitoring incredibly complex and enforcement extremely difficult. Profits from farming and exports are also disproportionately awarded to private company owners and, in some cases, government officials rather than workers.
For further reading regarding the palm oil industry’s socio-economic and political complexities, check out: The Global Politics of the Business of “Sustainable” Palm Oil.
Palm oil alternatives do exist in many products. Just check the label and look for vegetable oils explicitly stating they’re sourced from another plant (i.e. olive oil). As it stands, avoiding palm oil in products entirely is unrealistic. Additionally, many developing countries’ economies are tied to producing the oil. Boycotting it does not necessarily support developing nations. From a practical standpoint, though the production does cause deforestation, it does not account for as much forest loss per tree relative to less efficient oil crops. Thus, it is in our best interest to find a more sustainable way to grow the African palm. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil offers a way to purchase palm oil with fewer negative externalities. This NGO requires companies to choose less ecologically valuable land when new crops are planted. They also seek to create global production standards that benefit the earth and the individuals who process the plant. Currently, this option is not without flaws; it is challenging to track certification authenticity, and no source is fully sustainable. However, market pressure can help make this a more viable and truly sustainable option for the various industries that rely on palm oil. Selecting products with “RSPO” on the label (pictured below) increases the demand for a more ethically sourced product and can change production methods. The World Wildlife Fund has also created a Palm Oil Scorecard where you can search large companies to see how well their sustainability practices are rated. Reaching out to your local representatives to find out their stance on this highly controversial oil can help start a regional dialogue and bring attention to the issue.
Eradicating the oil entirely is not the solution. This precious substance supports livelihoods worldwide and stocks our cupboards. However, the loss of habitat associated with its harvest produces massive issues at the source and abroad. Rainforests and peatlands are natural defenses against global warming. They are also home to humans and irreplaceable wildlife. Creating a more sustainable industry is a necessity. Although it may seem like a daunting task, individual voices and actions carry significant weight. Besides, all change starts with just one person.
Abdullah, N., & Sulaiman, F. (2013). The oil palm wastes inMalaysia. Biomass now-sustainable growth and use, 1(3), 75-93.
Dauvergne, P. (2018). The Global Politics of the Business of “Sustainable” Palm Oil. Global Environmental Politics, 18(2), 34–52. doi:10.1162/glep_a_00455
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2018, June 19). Palm oil: The carbon cost of deforestation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 1, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180619123018.htm
Guillaume, T., Kotowska, M.M., Hertel, D. et al. Carbon costs and benefits of Indonesian rainforest conversion to plantations. Nat Commun 9, 2388 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04755-y
Meijaard, E., Brooks, T., Carlson, K., Slade, E. M., Ulloa, J. G., Gaveau, D. L., ... & Sheil, D. (2020). The environmental impacts of palm oil in context. Nature Plants, 6, 1418–1426.https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-00813-w
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.https://rspo.org/
World Wildlife Fund - Palm Oil Scoreboard.https://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/
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