Palm oil is big business. The high yields, versatility of uses and nutritional value are just some of the reasons why it has become the second most cultivated oil crop in the world.
It’s found in thousands of household products, from cosmetics to cookies, and can even be used to make biofuels. However, its cultivation is a cause for grave environmental concern.
The exorbitant spread of oil palm tree plantations, specifically in Southeast Asia where 85% of palm oil is now produced, poses an immediate, irrefutable threat to the biodiversity of the region.
How did palm oil become so popular? How does palm oil farming impact on the natural environment? And why might banning it not be the best solution? In answering these critical questions, we’ll try to unpack this complex and divisive environmental issue.
What is palm oil and how is it produced?
The plant in question, Elaeis guineensis, is a species of palm tree native to West Africa. This region, which stretches from the Gambia down to Angola, was previously known as Guinea and makes up part of the plant’s scientific name.
As you can see in the image below, the palm fruit grow in large, dense bunches, which can weigh up to 10 kilograms. There are actually two types of oil that can be extracted; crude palm oil comes from pressing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel.
Regardless of the method, the production process follows four key stages:
- Separation of individual fruits from the bunch.
- Softening of the fruit flesh.
- Pressing out of the oily liquid.
- Purification of the oil.
The initial stages typically take place in the country of cultivation, while fractionation and purification take place after the raw material has been exported. As you can imagine, this long process makes for a complicated supply chain.
The backstory and the boom
Humans have been using oil palm trees for millennia, with archeological evidence found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000 BC.
However, it was during the British Industrial Revolution, many centuries later, that the first significant demand for the oil emerged. At this time it was mainly used in candle making or as a lubricant for machinery.
As demand increased into the twentieth century, European-led plantations were established in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. As World History of Food reports, by 1930 global production had reached 250,000 metric tons per year.
But it wasn’t until the end of the last century that an upward trend became a boom. From 2000 to 2012 the output doubled from 25 to 50 million metric tons. And according to Nature, Indonesia, the world’s largest grower of palm oil is expected to double its output again by 2030.
How did palm oil become so big?
As we’ll see in the next section, there’s a multitude of environmental reasons to be dead against palm oil. In fact, for many ethical shoppers, palm oil is already firmly on the blacklist. So how did it become the oil of choice for so many industries?
Well, the truth is palm oil has a lot going for it. Since the 1990s we’ve known about the link between trans fats and certain health risks, such as heart disease. Consequently, palm oil, which is low in trans fats, was used as a replacement oil in many processed foods.
Besides the health benefits, it’s a remarkably efficient crop. It produces more oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil crop. As the IUCN states,“oil palm produces about 35% of all vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops.”
Considering the potential for high, cost-effective yields and the versatility of applications, it’s no surprise really that palm oil has become so dominant.
That said, as we’ll see in this next section, the rapid expansion of plantations around the developing world have had (and continue to have) catastrophic consequences for biodiversity.
What are the impacts of palm oil farming on biodiversity?
Even with high yields, the global demand is so great that vast areas of tropical forests and peatlands are being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. These actions are disastrous for the natural habitat, the atmosphere, local wildlife and humans alike.
When trees and peat are burnt, a huge quantity of carbon is released into the atmosphere. In fact, peatlands can hold 20 times the amount of carbon as forests and also contain methane. Not only do emissions drive global warming, but landscape fire smoke has been shown to be responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia every year.
As this recent UK television advert highlights, deforestation and the degradation of habitats is having an irreversible impact on local wildlife. Almost 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared over the last 20 years. Thousands of orangutans continue to be killed every year as a direct result of oil palm expansion.
Of course, with whole ecosystems being decimated, orangutans are not the only animals at risk. Other species include the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bear, pygmy elephant, clouded leopard and proboscis monkey. Sadly, many of these species are already critically endangered, such as the Sumatran tiger, which has a population of no more than 400.
For a more detailed explanation of the effects of deforestation, check out David Vallejo’s excellent post “Edge effects and habitat fragmentation: the main causes of species extinction”
What can be done to stop it?
In face of such devastation, the obvious response would be to ban palm oil production or boycott product which contain palm oil. Nevertheless, as counterintuitive as it may seem, quitting palm oil altogether may not be the answer.
One of the arguments put forward by conservation organisations, including Conservation International and IUCN, is that removing palm oil from the equation won’t alter the increasing demand for edible oils and biofuels.
Seeing as other oil crops have lower yields than oil palm, replacing it would likely exacerbate the problem because producers would need more land. The enemy is not palm oil itself, but how it is cultivated.
In line with this approach, the Union of Concerned Scientists have outlined the following necessary steps:
- Plantation developers improve yields and plant on degraded land.
- Governments formulate their biofuels policies to avoid unintended consequences and to ensure that critical climate goals are met.
- Companies in palm oil-related businesses act to ensure that none of their raw materials contribute to tropical deforestation or peatland depletion.
- Consumers exert their influence.
There are signs of change within the industry. For example, not-for-profit organisations like RSPO and POIG are working to facilitate dialogue between main stakeholders and push for more traceable and sustainable supply chains. Even so, many important corporations are clearly not taking sustainability seriously enough.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace International published a report titled “The Final Countdown: Now or never to reform the palm oil industry”. Its investigation links some of the world’s biggest brands with rainforest destruction in Papua, Indonesia.
As for legislative action, the European Union has committed to phasing out palm oil from transport fuel. This decision was based on the findings of a study funded by the European Commission that brought to light the indirect greenhouse gas emissions involved in their cultivation. However, with the deadline set at 2030, it may be case of too little, too late.
That leaves consumers, like me and you. Despite the growing public awareness of the environmental impact of palm oil, what’s less clear is how we can play our part in reversing the damage.
Initiatives like the Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard are well intended, but more needs to be done to persuade companies to disclose information about their practices, so that consumers can buy products with the peace of mind that the ingredients have come from sustainably cultivated plantations.
Look out for these two symbols, both of which indicate that palm oil was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
For those wishing to boycott palm oil products completely, it may be easier said than done. The fact that you don’t see the words ‘palm oil’ on the packet doesn’t mean it’s not there in some form or another. It may simply say ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat’. Similarly, your cosmetics may contain ingredients that are derived from oil palm trees, such as palmitate or stearic acid.
To help you navigate this problem and help you make informed decisions, WWF have published an Ingredients List with more than 20 terms.
For more information about how to make better, more ethical consumer choices, check out the “Complex World of Palm Oil” episode from the Ethical Consumer podcast.