The Problems with Palm Oil


What do cereal, soap and ice cream all have in common? Chances are, they contain palm oil. These two words seem trivial enough, yet the reality of the palm oil industry could not be more dangerous. Contributing tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, endangering endemic species, and harming Indigenous groups are all parts of the underbelly of the palm oil industry. This article will focus on the downsides of the globally dominating palm oil industry as well as actions consumers can take to avoid supporting it.

Palm oil is produced from oil palm plants, and because these plants require tropical conditions to grow, places such as Indonesia and Malaysia are hotspots for oil palm plantations. In fact, current projections done by the Rainforest Rescue Organization suggest that by 2025, over twenty six million hectares of land will be oil palm plantations. In Indonesia specifically, clearing forest land to make room for these plantations is causing over six thousand tons of carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere per hectare due the deforested land including peatland forests, which store more carbon dioxide than a regular forest. Because of these high deforestation levels for the creation of oil palm plantations, in 2015 Indonesia emitted more greenhouse gases than the United States. This shocking fact is cause for concern since deforestation is a big contributor to climate change.

Aside from adding more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the deforestation of Indoniesia’s peatland forests for oil palms also decreases the biodiversity in these areas significantly. A once rich and thriving ecosystem is destroyed and replaced by a single and repetitive oil palm species that strips away the diverse microorganisms in the soil, which harms the soil’s health and decreases productivity of other plant species nearby.

Diminishing soil biodiversity is only part of the biodiversity that is lost; oil palm plantations also rob much needed space from endemic Indonesian species like orangutans. According to one organization called The Orangutan Project, roughly eighty percent of orangutan habitat area has been taken away by oil palm plantations. The impacts of oil palm plantations on the environment are severe, and yet palm oil is still found in about half of all products sold in supermarkets today.

Image of an Indonesian orangutan, a species under threat by the palm oil industry.

The palm oil industry harms people too. The method in which the peatland forest in Indonesia is burned for plantations causes hazardous air quality conditions for millions of people, and in 2015, the smoke from the fires was so bad it was found to be the cause of close to one hundred thousand deaths. Several lives could have been saved if the palm oil companies had opted for more sustainable methods of farming that didn’t involve completely burning up the forest.

On top of smoke inhalation and air quality concerns, Indigenous people in Indonesia have to worry about having their homes be stolen from them. The Ibans, an Indigenous group who utilize the Indonsian forest land for food, clothes and many other purposes, were displaced from their home because of oil palm plantation construction despite having lived on the land for hundreds of years. Indonesia is home for over fifty million Indigenous people, and big companies taking over their lands to create oil palm plantations is a serious human rights violation. The oppressive practices of displacement and control over protected Indigenous land in Indonesia is a major cause for concern, and another reason why the palm oil industry needs to be re-thought and regulated significantly.

Due to outcry from environmental organizations as well as human rights groups, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established to try and make the industry more regulated. Over four thousand companies are members of RSPO, and while this organization has tried to establish global standards for palm oil harvesting, it falls short in terms of preventing deforestation from happening and protecting Indigenous land. With no routine inspections on members’ practices and few penalties for practices found to be in violation of the RSPO’s rules, there is not enough accountability to truly change the palm oil industry for the better. A brand that proudly displays the RSPO seal does not guarantee that it is abstaining from destructive deforestation practices, which leads to false advertising and confusion among consumers. Being aware of the limitations to the RSPO and advocating for tighter regulations within the palm oil industry are two important steps the public can take to help improve the industry and the environment.

Image of a grocery store aisle. Shopping for products without palm oil is crucial.

Some more actions consumers can participate in include talking to friends, family, neighbors, etc. about the palm oil industry as it is a lesser known environmental crisis, and reading the ingredient labels on products before buying them to ensure palm oil is not included. Unfortunately, there are more than four hundred names for palm oil found on ingredient lists, so it can be difficult to know for certain if the product contains it or not. There are some patterns however that are helpful clues, including the phrases: palm, stear, laur and glyc.

Advocating for more sustainable practices within the palm oil industry benefits all of us in the end, and will ultimately help reduce the effects of climate change by keeping millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the ground.