The Problem with Palm Oil

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In West Africa, the African oil palm has been cultivated for centuries. The plant was considered to be very useful, since it’s red oil-rich fruits can be used in a variety of products including soap, candle wax and engine lubricant. In the late 1840s, it played a key role in the British Industrial Revolution, and when it was discovered that the (west) African oil palm grew rather well in the hot, damp climates of the Far East, plantations began to spring up in Malaysia and Thailand. Palm oil is an extremely versatile vegetable oil; it is highly fractionable, meaning that it can be separated into many different products. On top of this, the oil palm is an extremely productive plant, producing 3.6 tonnes of palm oil per hectare; up to ten times more than other oil-producing crops such as rapeseed, sunflower or soyabean. Palm oil seemed to be an excellent choice of oil. Demand grew, and plantations spread into Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1930s. The oil palm is now grown on almost every continent on Earth, although the vast majority is still found in Southeast Asia.

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As the processed food industry flourishes, our demand for vegetable oil has sky rocketed. To satisfy this demand, the cultivation of vegetable oil crops has increased faster than any other major crop over the last 40 years. This trend looks set to continue, with current demand rising at 6 – 10% each year, and expected to double by 2020. Palm oil is now found in about 50% of all packaged foods, surpassing soy as the world’s favourite vegetable oil. Globally, nearly 47 million tonnes of the stuff is cultivated each year, twice the figure a decade ago. Although some cultivation continues in West and Central Africa, 90% of the world’s palm oil now comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. China is the biggest consumer, importing nearly 20% of the global supply; around 16% of it arrives in the EU.


As well as our increasing appetite for vegetable oils in food, palm oil demand is increasing because of it’s use as a biofuel. The ‘bio’ part of the name is rather misleading, for reasons which will become clear in the following paragraphs. Growing biofuels is now seen by many governments as a quick fix to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming. By 2020, 10% of fuel sold in the EU is expected to be biofuel. Indonesia already has 6 million hectares of biofuel oil palm plantations, and a further 4 million are planned before 2015.

The problem with palm oil…

…is that its production is devastating to the rainforest, to wildlife, to the climate and to the local communities that are swept aside in its wake. Starting a new palm oil plantation goes something like this; identify a suitable patch of rainforest and log it, remove the most valuable timber and burn the remaining wood, plant oil palms, harvest the fruit and make oil. Every hour 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared, equating to 30 square miles a day. It is because of this that palm oil is linked to deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, animal cruelty, carbon emissions and major human rights violations.

PalmOil004The rainforests of Southeast Asia are 130 million years old and harbour a huge variety of plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the area. But in 2008, Indonesia made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most deforestation in a year. More than half of its rainforest has been cut down and permission has been granted to convert up to 70% of the remaining forest into crop plantations, primarily of the oil palm. Some of the remaining land is ‘protected’, but illegal logging is also a major problem and forest rangers are vastly outnumbered, by armed logging guards. By just 2022, 90% of Indonesian rainforest may be lost forever. In 2011 Indonesia issued a moratorium on deforestation, which was extended in 2013 for a further two years. However, evidence shows that the rate of logging in Indonesia has in fact doubled since the moratorium was issued. The picture is only slightly better in neighbouring Malaysia. Satellite imagery shows that logging has now encroached on almost all of Borneo’s national parks. Since 2000, Malaysia has lost around 15% of its forest cover, giving it the highest rate of deforestation of any country in the world (Indonesia only deforested 8.5% of its total forest cover in this period). Peatland is also an important conservation priority, not only because of it’s carbon sequestration talents, but also because it is home to hundreds of endemic fish, not to mention the Sumatran Orangutan .Nearly half of Indonesia’s 22 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained, and 2700 km2  in Southeast Asia disappear each year. More than 60% of southeast Asia’s peatland has now been destroyed and across the region they continue to decline at nearly 4% a year.

This unprecedented habitat destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia is pushing many species to extinction, including the orangutan, one of our closest living relatives. Orangutans share around 97% of their DNA with humans, with only 13 million years of evolution separating us. But, unless something is done, the orangutan could be extinct in the wild within 10 years. They exist only in the rainforests of Borneo and Summatra, and over the last two decades, more than 90% of their habitat has been destroyed. Between one and five thousand orang-utans are killed (often brutally*) each year to make way for new oil palm plantations. Estimates suggest that between 2004 and 2008, Indonesia orang-utan populations dropped by 10%, and Malaysian populations by 14% – down to just 6,600.

*Orangutans, as well as other animals, have been found to have been buried alive, attacked by machete, gun and other weapons. Mothers are often killed so their babies can be sold or kept as pets, or used for entertainment in Thailand or Bali.

Along with our ginger cousin the Organutan, the Sumatran tiger, Sun bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard, Proboscis Monkey and Bearded Pig, to name a few, are also teetering on the brink of extinction thanks to habitat loss in Indonesia and Malaysia. These countries are some the most biodiverse regions on Earth; Sumatra (a country the size of Spain) is home to 465 species of bird, 194 mammals, 217 reptiles, 272 freshwater fish and at least 10,000 species of plant. However, a third of all mammals in Indonesia are critically endangered; only 25,000 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild and fewer than 100 Sumatran rhino are left. Southeast Asia’s peatlands are also home to a fascinating and evolutionarily significant array of rare fish, localised to specific river basins, including the world’s smallest fish.

Deforestation directly impacts upon the wildlife displaced from logged areas, but it also has other indirect effects. Road networks build to allow plantation workers and equipment access to the forest also pave the way for poachers and wildlife smugglers. Vast swathes of rainforest and peatland in Indonesia and Malaysia are being destroyed to make way for an ever-expanding oil palm industry. When you cut down the rainforest, burn timber and drain peat land, you also release enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, carbon that is a major contributor to global warming. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter; its peatlands cover just 0.1% of the Earth’s surface but are responsible for 4% (1.8 billion tonnes) of global emissions annually. Deforestation globally is a more severe threat to the climate than all the world’s motor vehicles combined.

The People

So, palm oil cultivation is proving devastating to rainforests and the wildlife they are home to, and contributing a shocking amount of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. To top it all, the industry is also linked to major indigenous rights abuses. In 2012, more than 600 major land conflicts were recorded in palm oil plantations, with over 5000 human rights abuses, and 22 deaths also reported. Oil palm plantations are also often guilty of child labour, with children being forced to carry heavy loads of fruit and spend extended periods of time bent down collecting fruit. They frequently suffer from heat exhaustion, cuts and bruises, and receive little or no pay.

Some suggest that the palm oil industry could continue to expand using grassland or previously deforested land. However, plantations are traditionally financed initially from the sale of the cleared timber. Without increasing the fight against illegal logging, it seems there it little hope that even legislation will be able to protect Indonesia’s remaining forests. So what else can we do?

Identify and Avoid Palm Oil

The good news is, identifying palm oil is getting easier. Previously, companies have only reported ‘vegetable oils’ in ingredients list, with no requirement for them to clarify the type and source of that oil (it is usually Indonesia palm oil). But in 2010 the ‘Forest Footprint Disclosure Project’, with the support of the British government, started an annual call for companies to indicate the extent of deforestation linked to their use of palm oil, soya, timber, beef, leather and biofuels. Following on from this, in 2011 the EU introduced a requirement to indicate the origin of the vegetable oil used in products on the label.

Just a random shopping basket full of random products,  which may or may not contain palm oil. Read the text.  This is for illustrative purposes only.The bad news is, it’s in almost everything. More than 70% of palm oil ends up on our plate, in the form of a mindboggling list of food products (bread, pastry, margarine, icecream, gravy granules, peanut butter, biscuits, cake, chocolate, chewing gum, pizza). Palm oil is also in many household products (shampoo, soap, lipstick, shaving foam, washing detergent, cleaning agents, toothpaste). It is found in nearly half of Britain’s best-selling grocery brands and 40 – 50% of household products in other developed nations such as USA, Canada and Australia. It is also a popular cooking oil in many parts of Asia. Avoiding palm oil can be an extremely tricky goal to fulfil.

Ok, so we can’t live without it, but we can’t live with its ethics. Is there a way to make palm oil consumption ethical? In recent years, attempts have been made to authenticate sustainably produced palm oil, and pressure is building for UK companies to guarantee their use of sustainable products.

In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever (a mutli-national company owning over 400 brands, and the world’s biggest palm-oil consumer) got together and set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO defined eight principles and 39 practical criteria to protect native peoples, plantation workers, small farmers and wildlife. It is a voluntary scheme, but 40% of palm oil suppliers are now members, promising not to log any more virgin forest. This doesn’t extend to ‘degraded forest’ where some trees have already been felled. The RSPO also developed the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) and Palm Kernal Oil (CSPKO) schemes, which dictate agreed environmental, economical and social standards which palm oil plantations must meet in order to be certified. After a slow start, the project is gaining momentum, with 15% of the total global palm oil produced now certified as sustainable. This equates to 8 million tonnes of palm oil, produced over 2.4 million hectares. Over 100 palm oil companies are now certified to sell traceable RSPO-certified palm oil.

Some feel that the RSPO guidelines don’t go far enough to claim sustainability. Being a member of the RSPO does not commit you to using certified palm oil or palm kernel oil; buying from an RSPO member does not guarantee their palm oil is certified. Further, verifying the sustainable palm oil that is on the market is extremely difficult. Most companies buy palm oil from processors and traders, and it would cost more to ship certified palm oil separately, so all the palm oil is mixed together. So, rather than actually buying the sustainable oil direct from the plantations, companies can instead buy certificates from sustainable producers as part of the GreenPalm scheme. The RSPO label tells you that the company bought the sustainability of some palm oil, but not necessarily the palm oil you are actually eating. Confused? Me too.


Still, this is a great start. If we can reach a point where 100% of palm oil is RSPO certified, this would make a huge difference to rainforests, wildlife and people in some of the poorest countries on Earth. But certified palm oil costs more – we need to make it clear to companies that it is worth their while investing in sustainable palm oil. We need to celebrate the companies that have already taken that step, and choose them in our next supermarket shop.

So, the honour roll**:

  • Ecover
  • Body Shop (L’Oreal)
  • Sainsbury
  • Tesco
  • Waitrose
  • M&S
  • Asda (Walmart)
  • Cooperative
  • Migros
  • Royal Ahold
  • Allied Bakeries
  • Burton’s Foods
  • Cadbury (Kraft)
  • Cloetts
  • Devineau Bougies
  • La Francaise
  • DSM Nutritional Products
  • Findus
  • Goteborgs Kex
  • Henkel
  • Iglo
  • Nutrition & Sante
  • Premier Foods
  • Santa Maria (Paulig)
  • Saraya
  • Jordans and Ryvita
  • United Biscuits
  • Warburtons
  • Yves Rocher

** These companies all source at least 75% of their palm oil from certified providers, scored at least 9/10 on the WWF Palm Oil Buyers scorecard, and have committed to 100% sustainable palm oil before 2015.

We use palm oil far more than we think about it, but it is becoming easier to be (reasonably) sure that your palm oil isn’t harming southeast Asia’s beautiful forests. It’s not perfect, but it’s all we have right now, and we have to support companies and organisations that are making positive steps towards sustainable palm oil, so that it continues to be an investment priority for them.

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2 comments on “The Problem with Palm Oil

  1. I am not sure what to say about this article.

    This is well documented, no problem there. But it all tends to incriminate palm oil and quite frankly there are very positive things to say.
    If I were to name just one, it would be that millions of people accross Asia and Africa are directly or indirectly fighting poverty thanks to oil palm trees. For producing countries, those plantations enable economic development.

    You should give a look to what Cirad researchers published about it.

    [Comment migrated from Google+ comments:

    • I agree completely, however there is no prerequisite that those palm oil plantations that are enabling economic development and helping people fight poverty should not also be developed in a sustainable way which respects the environment. In fact, better to integrate the infrastructure and mentality of sustainable production earlier rather than later. This article was an attempt to raise awareness of the palm oil issue for biodiversity whilst also pointing out that there is more than one type of palm oil – sustainable plantations are possible and do exist and that we have a choice. 

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