Most of us have heard bad things about palm oil. It’s been associated with photographs of terrified orangutans in Indonesia. That is definitely not a good thing. But what exactly is palm oil? And how harmful is palm oil for the environment? Let’s find out.
- What is Palm Oil?
- Global Demand for Palm Oil
- How is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?
- What is “Sustainably Grown Palm Oil”?
- Look for More Eco-friendly Solutions
- Carolina Tiger Rescue
The demand for palm oil has increased exponentially over the last decade or so. But it’s not something that was discovered recently. Palm oil has been around for centuries, but it began to be commercially exploited in the 1820s. Today, it’s present as an ingredient in everything from cosmetics to personal care products.
Let’s dive into the specifics.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. So, it’s a type of vegetable oil, and a very versatile one at that. The palm tree grows mainly in the tropics, and palm oil is a common cooking oil in many Asian and African cuisines. It has been used in a wide range of products, including food, cosmetics, and cleaning products (and even as biofuel).
So far, so good, right?
Global Demand for Palm Oil
Palm oil has been increasingly found to be very useful in numerous products. Obviously, demand has skyrocketed. The African palm tree, which used to only grow in Africa, is now being grown across Asia, and in North and South America. It’s also very cheap to produce, adding another “advantage” to its widespread use.
Consider this: today, more than half of all packaged products in the United States contain palm oil as an ingredient. It’s in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream.
The demand for these products has consequently increased the demand for palm oil. It’s now an $80 billion industry.
Now here’s the problem: the production of palm oil is linked to a number of negative environmental and social impacts.
How is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?
There are several massive problems with the palm oil industry as it stands today.
1 / Deforestation
One of the main concerns related to palm oil is wide scale deforestation. Oil palm trees are grown primarily in tropical regions, such as Southeast Asia and Africa, and the expansion of palm oil plantations is a major driver of deforestation in these areas.
Palm trees usually live for about 28-30 years, but they get too tall beyond a point for easy harvesting of the fruit – so they’re cut down to make way for new trees. This happens regularly on a massive scale, along with virgin forests also being cut down to make way for monocrop oil palm plantations. Picture acres and acres of rainforest being decimated. According to studies, palm oil deforestation is responsible for between 0.8 – 2% of global tree loss.
According to the WWF, “Around 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth. In these places, there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.”
This has directly led to the loss of valuable biodiversity and the displacement of indigenous communities.
2 / Impact on Wildlife and Biodiversity
Within just the last two decades, the palm oil industry has resulted in the death of an estimated 100,000 orangutans. Elephants, rhinos and tigers, already endangered, are also at risk due to deforestation and habitat destruction.
3 / Use of Pesticides & Fertilizers
Another issue is the use of pesticides and fertilizers in the cultivation of oil palm trees. These chemicals have a negative impact on the health of local communities and the environment. Additionally, the large-scale monoculture of oil palm trees can lead to a loss of biodiversity, an increase in soil erosion, and a reduction in the resilience of ecosystems.
4 / Human Rights Abuses
The palm oil industry has also been linked to human rights abuses, including forced labor, child labor, and land grabbing. Many people living in the areas where oil palm trees are grown are dependent on the land for their livelihoods and the expansion of palm oil plantations can displace them from their homes and land.
5 / Carbon Emissions & Climate Change
The palm oil industry is also a major contributor to climate change. The clearing of rainforests for palm oil plantations releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and the burning of peatlands, which are often cleared for oil palm cultivation, also releases large amounts of CO2. Additionally, the cultivation of oil palm trees is water-intensive, which can lead to water scarcity in regions where water resources are already limited.
6 / Health Concerns
We won’t get into much detail about the health concerns surrounding palm oil, but, briefly, palm oil is a saturated fat – that means it’s going to raise your cholesterol level. In addition, it’s widely known to contribute to the formation of tumors, pre-cancerous growths and cancer. The long-term consumption of such fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
What is “Sustainably Grown Palm Oil”?
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a non-profit organization that promotes the use of sustainably grown palm oil. They work to “develop and implement global standards for producing and sourcing certified sustainable palm oil.”
What exactly is “sustainably grown palm oil”? It involves halting deforestation, treating communities and workers fairly; and protecting wildlife and the environment.
The RSPO has established a set of environmental and social criteria that must be met for palm oil to be certified as sustainable. Many companies have committed to using only RSPO-certified palm oil in their products (the RSPO have certified over 3,700 companies so far), which can begin to help mitigate the negative environmental impacts of the palm oil industry.
Look for More Eco-friendly Solutions
While palm oil is a versatile and widely used ingredient in many products, the production of palm oil has been linked to too many negative environmental and social impacts for us to ignore it. Deforestation, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, human rights abuses, and climate change are all major concerns related to the palm oil industry.
Sustainable palm oil options are a huge improvement, of course, but it’s still a load on the environment. It is important for us to be aware of these issues, and to also encourage more companies to use sustainable palm oil, if at all.
Meanwhile, as responsible consumers, we can do a few things:
1 / Check out WWF’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard, which lists out brands that only use sustainably produced palm oil.
2 / If you can use products that do not have any palm oil at all, that’s even better! Check out our post on clean beauty products. Of course, the RSPO claims that using sustainable palm oil is better than a boycott, but the RSPO is made up of industry insiders, so…who knows. The world is extremely complicated, and palm oil itself is not the enemy. But I think we can all agree that habitat destruction of vulnerable species is a terrible thing to allow to happen, and it can even gravely impact our entire ecosystem (similar to why bees are important to humans).
3 / If you’re in a position to be able to help out, then these are some of the organizations are working on rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife and forests:
Orangutan Foundation International
Carolina Tiger Rescue
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NOTE: All brand photographs belong to the respective brands/businesses. The featured image of an orangutan is by Jorge Franganillo.
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