How Palm Oil Production is Destroying Our Environment

10 min reading time

Palm oil is everywhere. We consume palm oil daily through food, hygiene products, beauty, and skincare without knowing it. But this widespread natural ingredient has been the subject of controversy in recent years for reasons you might not expect.

Palm oil is also used in animal feed and biofuel in many countries. One of the reasons for palm oil’s popularity is its low price, and as the global population grows, the demand for palm oil is set to reach high peaks as well. India, China, Indonesia, and Europe are the primary consumers of palm oil. It is estimated that the average French person consumes 2 kg of palm oil per year, or 6% of the total fat consumption of an adult between the ages of 18 and 72 (RSPO, 2022).

What Exactly is Palm Oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees and bears the scientific name Elaeis guineensis. Palm oil is edible, and two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil coming from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel or the stone in the middle of the fruit.

Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of the global supply, but 42 other countries also produce palm oil (WWF, nd).

Benefits of Palm Oil

Palm oil is popular for several reasons. Its cooking properties are excellent, especially since it has a high smoke point of 450ºF (232ºC). Palm oil also has a natural preservative effect which extends the shelf life of food products. One last benefit of palm oil is that it is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop.  It needs less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil, the reason why it’s so inexpensive (RSPO, 2022).

Why is Palm Oil So Controversial?

Many facts can answer this question. First of all, the low price of the oil is due to legacies of colonialism and exploitation that still shape today’s industry and make it challenging to shift palm oil onto a more sustainable path.

From slavery to skincare: palm oil history

Palm oil was the staple food in a region stretching from Senegal to Angola along Africa’s western coast long ago. It entered the global economy in the 1500s aboard ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. The author of a 1711 book noted that traders smeared captives’ skin with palm oil to make them look “smooth, sleek, and young” before sending them to the auction block.

By the mid-1600s, Europeans were also using palm oil on their skin for its medicinal virtues. By the 1790s, British entrepreneurs were adding palm oil to soap for its reddish-orange color and violet-like scent. The following decades after slave trade was abolished in 1807, African states were encouraged by the British to focus on producing palm oil. By 1840, palm oil was cheap enough to completely replace tallow or whale oil in such products as soap and candles.

As palm oil lost its reputation as a luxurious good because it became increasingly common, exporters made it even cheaper with labor-saving methods that allowed palm fruit to ferment and soften. However, the results were often rancid (Robins, 2021).

Palm oil colonialism

By 1900, a new industry was gobbling up all kinds of oil: margarine was invented, and palm oil was first used to dye margarine yellow. It also became a perfect main ingredient because it stayed firm at room temperature and melted in the mouth, just like butter (Robins, 2021).

Soap and margarine magnates such as Britain’s William Lever sought European colonies in Africa for larger quantities of fresher, edible palm oil. However, African communities often refused to provide land to foreign companies because making oil by hand was still profitable for them. Colonial oil producers resorted to government coercion and outright violence to find labor.

The magnates were more successful in Southeast Asia, creating a new palm oil plantation industry. Colonial rulers there gave plantation companies nearly unlimited access to land. The companies hired “coolies”, a derogatory European term for migrant workers from southern India, Indonesia, and China, based on the Hindi word Kuli, an aboriginal tribal name, or the Tamil word kuli, for “wages.” These laborers toiled under coercive, low-paying contracts and discriminatory laws.

The oil palm itself also adapted to its new locale. While scattered palms grew to towering heights on African farms, they remained short in tight, orderly plantations that were easier to harvest efficiently in Asia. By 1940, plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia were exporting more palm oil than all of Africa (Robins, 2021).

A poisoned gift?

As Indonesia and Malaysia gained Independence after World War II and plantation companies retained their access to cheap land, plantations expanded to meet the demand. Around 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, what seemed to be a golden gift quickly appeared as a poisoned one. Nowadays, palm oil tree is grown in the tropics across the world, namely in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As global production and demand for palm oil increase rapidly, plantations are destroying big swatches of rich, green rainforest.

Resident species such as orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinos have lost their homes. Some indigenous have fared little better, being forced to leave their land and being robbed of their livelihoods (WWF, nd).

Palm oil deforestation: endangered species are losing critical habitat

The most significant impact of unsustainable palm oil production is the large-scale devastation of tropical forests. This widespread habitat loss for endangered species produces human-wildlife conflict as large animals are displaced. Even within Tesso Nilo National Park, set up in Sumatra to provide habitat for the endangered Sumatran tiger, 43% of the park is overrun with illegal palm oil plantings (WWF, nd).

Soil, air, and water pollution

Burning is regularly used to clear forests for plantations. Fires in peatlands are difficult to extinguish, and the smoke causes health consequences throughout Southeast Asia.

The generation of lots of effluent from palm oil mills results in freshwater pollution and affects downstream biodiversity and people. The indiscriminate application of pesticides and fertilizers can pollute surface and groundwater sources.

Climate change

The alarming drainage and conversion of peat forests in Indonesia are particularly damaging because these forests store more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem in the world. Forest fires used during clearing release sequestered carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Indonesia’s high deforestation rate has made it the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases.

Other direct impacts

One might think that there must be some benefits to palm oil, such as creating jobs for local people. However, according to a study by Ayompe et al., in 2021, palm oil trade has more negative (109) than positive (99) direct impacts on human wellbeing.

The study pointed out that the three most frequently reported negative impacts include conflicts (25%), housing conditions (18%), and land grabbing (16%). Other direct negative impacts reported in the peer-reviewed literature of the study include access to education, harassment, inequality, job quality, security, social equity, social networks, and solidarity.

Finally, the unsustainable palm oil trade also impacts housing conditions, provision of hospitals, and suicide rate.

The study was based on the investigation of peer-reviewed literature and the following graph shows the direct negative impacts of palm oil trade on human wellbeing from peer-reviewed literature vs. grey literature (research produced outside of commercial and academic publishing) and (b) direct positive impacts from peer-reviewed literature (Ayompe et al.,2021).
From ScienceDirect

What can be done?

The first thing that came to your mind is to boycott the use of palm oil, right? However, this might not be the solution, and here’s why:

Substituting palm oil for other oils can worsen the problems mentioned above. Palm oil is the highest-yielding vegetable oil when grown responsibly and to the best standards. Now imagine replacing palm oil with other oils such as soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower, which can require significantly more land to produce the same volume.

This could potentially cause a more significant impact on habitats, biodiversity, and the environment. Moreover, since the global market for vegetable oil is so interlinked and palm oil is one of the least expensive oils, replacing palm oil with alternative oils is likely to shift demand elsewhere, meaning that overall demand for palm oil does not decrease.

Therefore, the solution is to move towards sustainable palm oil production and other vegetable oils instead of simply boycotting the products (WWF, 2018).

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

Fortunately, work is being done to stop palm oil production from destroying the planet. A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2003 to get those in the palm oil industry to work together to do this.

RSPO represents the largest, independent, third-party certification scheme for palm oil. With the buy-in of most of the global industry, it continues to play a vital role and has the potential to create lasting change. The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

When properly applied, these criteria can help minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions. Consequently, some manufacturers have committed to only buying palm oil that they know has been produced sustainably.

Take Action

As an individual, you can help in the fight against unsustainable palm oil production by:

  • Helping to raise awareness about RSPO and CSPO
  • Shopping sustainably
  • Telling the companies that make your favorite products that you want to see them use CSPO rather than conventional palm oil  
  • Supporting those companies that have made a strong commitment to CSPO

As a business, you can:

  • Join the RSPO and become an active member
  • Make sure all your palm oil use is certified under any of the CSPO supply chain options
  • Set a target and timetable to move to segregated sustainable palm oil
  •  Be transparent in reporting your palm oil use and take responsibility for all the palm oil in the products you sell
  • Buy from certified RSPO member growers that are going beyond the basic requirements of the RSPO and committing to credible, independently verified standards like the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) Charter or RSPO NEXT
  • Raise awareness of the RSPO and CSPO globally.

It is clear that when done in an unsustainable way, the production of palm oil has devastating effects on the environment and communities.

However, the production and use of palm oil should not be stopped, as this will exacerbate the problems. Palm oil is more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils, but it is crucial that palm oil is bought and sold sustainably and certified.

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