Palm Oil: A Dangerous Dependency

How can palm oil be produced sustainably and reduce the negative impact on the environment?

What is Palm Oil?

Just like many vegetable oils, palm oil is a prevalent ingredient in dozens of foods. However, palm oil also pervades more than just your chip bags in the pantry. In fact, it is so common it's used in laundry detergents, makeup, shampoos, soaps, and of course, in food products like margarine and baby formula. Palm oil comes from the Elaeis guineensis, otherwise known as an oil palm tree, and has become the epicenter of a very lucrative yet destructive industry. Oil palms originate from the west and southwest regions of Africa and are occasionally referred to as African oil palms. Oil palms usually grow to be between 20–30 meters tall, with roots that congregate into mats in the first 35 centimeters of soil. At the top of oil palm trees grows 1,000-3,000 fruits in bunches, called drupes. It's within the center of the drupes that the mesocarp resides. Mesocarp is the edible part of the fruit that is rich in fatty acids, vitamins, and amino acids. It's also the place where palm oil is extracted for production. Because palm oil is so versatile, its trees have been brought to various parts of the world in encourage continual growth and production. Over the years, this has been at the expense of the natural habitats and wildlife that are located in prime spots for the plantations. We have palm oil to thank for so many commodities that exist in stores, and yet its production severely contributes to the destruction of several ecosystems around the globe.

sponsored content
The Roots of the Industry

Because oil palms thrive in places with tropical climates, they've been brought to other parts of the world, including Latin America and Asia. They were first brought to South America during the slave trade and were introduced to Southeast Asia during the 19th century. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia make up the bulk of palm oil operations, creating 90% of the global output of palm oil. Unfortunately, they are also two locations with some of the most biodiverse tropical forests in the world that have been subject to deforestation to make room for palm plantations. Because an oil palm's natural habitat is the rainy and humid tropics, the rainforests in Latin America and Asia were perfect locations for new cultivation sites.

Many look to Sumatra, Indonesia, as the heart of the palm oil industry. As the world's largest source of palm oil, Indonesia produced 46 million tons of palm oil in 2021 alone. The plantations in Indonesia can either be small and privately owned or large, state-owned plantations. Overall, palm oil makes up 4.5% of the GDP of the country's economy. With such high demands, many Indonesians are employed within the sector. The nonprofit news platform, Mongabay, reports that 7 million people in Indonesia work in the palm oil industry. Of those 7 million, more than half do not work under formal contracts, leaving them without employee protections. In some cases, this involves forced labor as well as child labor. Labor rights in the palm oil industry have been a huge discussion recently. Indonesia's supreme court found that PT London Sumatra had violated their employment contracts and ordered the company to make severance payments.

Deforestation

Palm oil is partly responsible for 60% of tropical deforestation, along with beef and soy. In 2020, the oil palm plantations in Indonesia were reported at taking up 14.59 million hectares of land. That's larger than the entire state of New York, and it's a number that's expected to grow significantly in the upcoming years. For both Indonesia and Malaysia, the palm oil industry is the number one cause of deforestation. Sumatra, Indonesia, in particular, has one of the three remaining tropical rainforests left in the world. Its rainforest is subject to continuous fires because oil palm plantations can't be established without the removal of the essential trees that make up the rainforest. Even after those trees are torn down, any remaining vegetation and plants are burned down to clear the space. Indonesia, in particular, has peatlands in its rainforests, which are wetlands that are dense with plant material and shrubs. Because oil palm trees can't grow on terrain covered in that much water, the peatlands must be drained. This is especially damaging due to the fact that peatlands are natural carbon sinks. Draining peatlands releases CO2 back into the atmosphere, and if their removal continues at the same rate, peatlands could be gone by 2030.

For both Indonesia and Malaysia, the palm oil industry is the number one cause of deforestation.

To make matters worse, not every plantation has been developed legally. It was found that 19% of Indonesian plantations were without permits and taking up space in the country's forest estates. Such acts are prohibited as the land is meant for orangutan and tiger habitats. Not only do illegal plantations drive out wildlife, but it also drives out the indigenous communities that live nearby. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of law enforcement to keep these plantations from infringing upon lands meant to be left alone. Without its natural landscape, what was once a moist, densely populated forest is now susceptible to fires, flooding, and heat waves.

sponsored content
Endangering Endemic Wildlife

When monocrops swallow up acres and acres of land, animals are put in danger at the expense of a quick profit. The orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra have lost numbers due to the palm oil industry. A century ago, there were over 230,000 orangutans between Borneo and Sumatra. Today there are only 7,000 orangutans in Sumatra and about 104,000 in Borneo. The Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) estimates that within the last ten years, the species' population has dropped by 50%. Orangutans are marked as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. During the years 2009 and 2011, roughly two-thirds of the Sumatran tiger habitat was also lost to deforestation. A lot of the blame can be placed on illegal operations in sites that were supposed to be off-limits, like the Tesso Nilo National Forest. As human activity eats away at the rainforest, the animals that live there are left with nowhere else to go. Not only do the intentional fires drive them out, but some farmers may shoot orangutans that wander into plantations because they're seen as a nuisance. Organizations like OFI work to rescue, rehabilitate, and protect remaining forest areas. In 2013 they relocated seven orangutans to safety and rescued over 15 baby orangutans from captivity.

A century ago, there were over 230,000 orangutans between Borneo and Sumatra. Today there are only 7,000 orangutans in Sumatra and about 104,000 in Borneo.
sponsored content
Why Do We Use So Much Palm Oil?

Given all the repercussions that palm oil production has created, it can be astounding that it has continued for so long. With a closer look, it's understandable why palm oil is everywhere. Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil out there, and its ability to create huge profits has caused corporations to turn a blind eye to the ecological impacts. In comparison to soy oil and coconut oil, it requires less space to grow and yields the same output as other seed oils. Plus, it is extremely versatile due to its chemical makeup. Palm oil is 50% saturated fatty acids, 40% monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids. These qualities, among others, allow palm oil to hold color, stay solid at room temperature, easily remove oil and dirt, moisturize hair and skin, and create bubbles in soaps. That's why so many large brand names use palm oil in their products. These corporations include Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg's, Kraft Heinz, L'Oreal, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, to name a few. Up until recently, countries in Europe had been considering palm oil to use in biofuels in hopes of replacing it with diesel fuel. Diesel fuel releases heavy emissions, and a fuel that is more plant-based seemed like the better option. The truth is that the search for alternative fuels is not so simple. While bio-fuels burn cleaner, the production of palm oil for biofuels does damage in other ways.

sponsored content
Businesses That Have Sworn Off Palm Oil

Palm oil has a strong grip on countless consumer goods, and despite this, some corporations have chosen to break away from their dependency. The British cosmetic retailer, Lush, began the process of removing palm oil from its products in 2008. The company led its efforts with the slogan "wash your hands of palm oil." On its website, Lush shares that the industrialization of palm oil production is the threat, recognizing that not all cultivation is inherently harmful. One of the company's buyers, Mark Rumbell, reiterated this point explaining, "The problem isn't palm, but how it's grown and managed." As an Ethical Buyer, Mark's position at Lush focused on the sourcing of natural materials and analyzing the sustainability of potential suppliers. While Lush products no longer contain palm oil, some of its synthetics do have palm oil derivatives. Visitors on the website can access a transparent list of ingredients containing these derivatives. Lush shares that the presence of these palm oil derivatives is due to how hard it is to find alternatives. Even so, companies like Lush, who prioritize the ethics and sustainability of their products, play a vital role in creating an economy that discourages harmful practices of production.

On its website, Lush shares that the industrialization of palm oil production is the threat, recognizing that not all cultivation is inherently harmful.

However, it's not always an easy decision to make. In 2018, Iceland Foods and Greenpeace launched a Christmas campaign on palm oil that highlighted the destruction of the orangutan population. The animated short film depicts a baby orangutan that unknowingly causes havoc in a little girl's bedroom after escaping the dangerous machines that tear apart its home in the rainforest. The ad came after Iceland Food's pledge to take out palm oil from its food products. Unfortunately, in March of 2022, the British supermarket chain announced it had to return to using certified sustainable palm oil due to the rising costs of sunflower oil. In addition, 70% of sunflower oil comes from the Baltic region, and the war between Russia and Ukraine has severely impacted its availability. "The only alternative to using palm oil under the current circumstances would simply be to clear our freezers and shelves," said the retailer's chairman. With palm oil already being the cheaper option, it is no doubt a challenge for businesses to break away from palm oil when the economy takes a turn.

sponsored content
Searching for Solutions

With this in mind, what realistic options are there to relieve the strain that palm oil dependency has created? Fortunately, there are a handful of organizations that are taking different approaches to the problem. Both preventative and reactive measures can adjust how palm oil is cultivated, how forests are managed, and how wildlife is cared for. All are needed to reclaim a healthy ecosystem. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has chosen to do so by developing a system for certified sustainable palm oil. Companies that wish to operate more ethically must follow the environmental and social standards set by the RSPO if they want their palm oil to be categorized as sustainable. The organization has implemented a Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) system to measure the impact of its efforts and research best practices. On its website, RSPO explains that creating guidelines for ethical and sustainable palm oil does more good than boycotting palm oil. If the world were to abandon palm oil entirely, even more land would be needed to produce alternative seed oils. There is no other oil that can be harvested at the same yield as palm oil without requiring more terrain to do so. Boycotting palm oil completely would also steal the livelihoods of small farmers and workers that rely on palm oil to make money.

Government Action

In 2019, The European Commission banned palm oil subsidies to slow the growth of plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. It also determined that palm oil for biofuel was not worth the extreme deforestation that it would cause. Making these decisions isn't always simple, and consequences have to be considered from every perspective. Turning away from palm oil incentives and production does no good for the small farmers who rely on palm oil, but it does create steps to salvage the environment. Just recently, Indonesia and Norway came together to sign an agreement on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. The pact would give Indonesia funds from Norway following Indonesia's ability to reduce carbon emissions.

As it stands, the demand for palm oil by western countries has created a dependency that can't be so easily reversed. Solutions like RSPO's certified palm oil and slowing down production instead of total elimination can alleviate some of the environmental damage being done. It could also allow smaller farmers to retain some kind of business and income, albeit not at the same fast-paced rates as before. Establishing best practices for oil palm plantations instead of complete eradication is also what the World Wildlife Fund recommends. In addition, the WWF has collaborated with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project to protect what's left of the forests in Sumatra. Along with the local communities, they are building wildlife corridors that allow animals to access the forest in spite of any cultivated land or roads. While there is no one solution for fixing the mess made by the palm oil industry, conscious consumption and support of these organizations can go a long way in saving the lands and wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Key Takeaways
  • Look for RSPO Certified products when you're in the grocery store or shopping online. 
  • Industrial production of palm oil has endangered wildlife populations and is responsible for deforestation in Southeast Asia.
  • Boycotting palm oil would create a different set of problems. Producing more sustainable palm oil that protects forests and wildlife may be the best way to address the issues at hand.