What Is the Problem With Palm Oil?

When you think of palm oil, you probably remember being told at some point how bad it is for the environment.

A push to be palm oil-free and to boycott palm oil in products points to deforestation as the main reason the oil is so bad for the environment.

But is that really the case?

The problem with palm oil is that corruption and unsustainable practices like forest fire clearing are rife throughout the industry. But it isn’t all bad – certifications like the RSPO seek to hold suppliers to standards, and the alternative isn’t as squeaky clean either.

Palm oil has so many uses and has a higher yield than other vegetable oils, so certified sustainable palm oil is still eco-friendly!

Is palm oil really bad for the environment?

Like with most natural products considered unsustainable, palm oil isn’t as wholly bad as people make it out to be, but it does have some devastating effects on the environment when not properly regulated.

To understand more, we need to consider how palm oil is bad for the environment.

Originating in Africa, oil palm trees are also found in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia now producing around 84% of the global supply of palm oil.

Around 36% of the world’s vegetable oil demand is supplied by palm oil, using less than 9% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils – including soy oil, sesame oil, maize oil, linseed oil, olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, and more.

A versatile oil with multiple useful properties, palm oil is widely used because it can give products a longer shelf-life, gives fried food a crispy and crunchy texture and is odorless and colorless so you don’t even notice it’s been added!

There are many reasons that palm oil is considered bad for the environment, with deforestation at the core of its environmental impact. Palm oil is also associated with:

  • Air pollution from illegal forest fires to clear land
  • Corruption, with politicians taking bribes and others evading taxes
  • Human rights abuses
  • Worker deaths and child labor
  • Use of synthetic chemicals for fertilizers and herbicides

An investigation by Global Witness found that the true price of palm oil included all of the above just in Papua New Guinea.

In one example, police were paid to drag men from their beds in the village of Watwat and beat them for unknown persons vandalizing nearby oil palm trees.

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation and can be linked to the destruction of habitats for endangered species like orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos.

This deforestation is causing “millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases” to be released into the atmosphere, according to WWF.

How do palm oil plantations lead to deforestation?

The IUCN Oil Palm Task Force produced a situation analysis of oil palm and biodiversity in 2018 which found that the “biodiversity impacts of the growing palm oil production have been significant”.

Between 1972 and 2015, oil palm development accounted for 47% of deforestation in Malaysia alone, with 16% of forest loss in Indonesia across the same period of time.

In the Malaysian region of Borneo, industrial oil palm is accountable for up to 60% of all deforestation within the region.

While in the Indonesian region of Borneo, less deforestation is linked to oil palm plantations due to the previous deforestation that cleared forests for timber.

Unfortunately, deforestation in Borneo has continued, with industrial oil palm plantations becoming “the primary driver of deforestation in Borneo, accounting for 50% … of Borneo’s old-growth forest area loss” between 2005 and 2015. This has directly impacted orangutans, with less than 54,000 Bornean orangutans remaining in the wild.

Deforestation isn’t used just to make room for more oil palm trees. When the trees grow too high to easily harvest fruit from, the trees are cut down so new trees can be planted.

It takes approximately five years for oil palms to grow enough to produce fruit, so if too many trees are culled at the same time, a plantation might not have enough yield on their current land, which could encourage them to clear other trees in the area.

Why is palm oil controversial?

In recent years, many people have called for the boycott of products containing palm oil in an effort to slow down the rate of deforestation caused by palm oil production. But many stand against this idea, as palm oil has a smaller environmental impact than other vegetable oils.

Coconut oil is just as bad, if not worse, for the environment than palm oil. Only around 20 million tons of coconut oil is produced worldwide, compared to 160 million tons of palm oil.

The production of coconut oil has been found to threaten 18.33 species per million tons of oil produced, compared to 3.79 species threatened by oil palm per million tons of oil produced.

Palm oil has long been touted as being environmentally harmful, but in comparison to other vegetable oils, it might be less damaging than most people think.

Palm oil-free products often advertise their lack of palm oil as a marketing strategy and may not actually be using sustainable substitutes.

Sustainably sourced palm oil is better than replacing it with a less transparent alternative like coconut oil.

Because other vegetable oil productions need more land to produce as much oil as oil palm plantations, swapping demand from palm oil to something like coconut oil could increase deforestation at a much more alarming rate.

Can palm oil ever be sustainable?

Good news: palm oil can be sustainable! But it requires widespread change over the industry to tackle deforestation and ensure that palm oil is produced organically.

Palm oil’s many uses have driven up demand for the oil because it’s so efficient to grow and harvest.

Because the fruit can be harvested all year round, palm oil has “the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop“. Given its versatility, it’s no wonder that the palm oil industry is so in demand.

But that doesn’t mean we can just stop using palm oil altogether.

For one, it would waste a lot of land already cleared for oil palm plantations, essentially making all the deforestation for nothing.

Because palm oil has such a high yield for less land, it might be more eco-friendly to use palm oil over other vegetable oils. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the environmental impact of palm oil – far from it.

To be more sustainable, oil palm plantations need to reduce (or altogether stop) cutting back trees and instead plant on already deforested areas, like with the Indonesian region of Borneo. This could help reforest areas over time, especially if plantations strive to encourage biodiversity.

Pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use are another problem, as the cheapest are all made with synthetic chemicals.

A study found that mechanical weed control positively affected plants, aboveground arthropods, belowground animals, water filtration, and base saturation.

With more sustainable practices and farming management, palm oil plantations could benefit wider biodiversity, working with the rest of the ecosystem instead of driving it away. This could also have benefits for endangered species.

Boycotting palm oil isn’t going to help the environment directly, because it pushes more demand for other, potentially more unsustainable crops. Instead, purchasing from sustainable brands is the way to go.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifies companies with a global standard for sustainable palm oil.

Having certified sustainable growers and smallholders ensures transparency and guidance to avoid environmental harm.

What palm oil is used for?

Palm oil is found in a wide variety of products, from cosmetics to food. It can even be found in animal feed, chocolate, and toothpaste.

Over 68% of palm oil is used in food, including margarine, chocolate, pizza, bread, and cooking oil.

27% of palm oil is used in industrial applications and products like soap, detergent, cosmetics, and cleaning agents.

What chocolate contains palm oil?

Many snacks contain palm oil, including chocolate and biscuits. Palm oil helps prevent chocolate from melting and gives chocolate a smoother texture.

Companies like Mars (who produce Mars bars, Marathon bars, Maltesers, and Twix) are certified by the RSPO as a company “in compliance with the RSPO Supply Chain Certification Standard”.

They are certified for their operations in the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, Hotel Chocolat is not certified by the RSPO, and has pledged to achieve zero palm oil “by the end of 2023”.

Previously, their only claim of not using palm oil “directly” came in a 2013 Tweet. It’s best to avoid Hotel Chocolat products in the meanwhile.

Which palm oil products to avoid

If you’re going to cut out palm oil products, cut out those that aren’t committed to sustainability, especially sustainable palm oil.

While you don’t have to swap to palm oil-free chocolates, you can do quick searches to determine whether a company is ethical and sustainable.

Ethical Consumer’s palm oil-free chocolate article rates palm oil sourcing, which also looks at certifications.

Hotel Chocolat is one of those with the worst rating for palm oil sourcing, while Mars has the best rating.

The cosmetics industry is often focused on for their lack of sustainability, from microbeads to microplastics, as well as palm oil.

You probably can’t avoid palm oil in cosmetics products due to just how versatile and cheap it is for companies to use, but you can use the Palm Oil Scorecard from WWF to check how well companies measure up.

For example, Johnson & Johnson is rated 16.84 out of 24, while The Body Shop is rated just 13.84 out of 24.

It’s worth checking how sustainable your favorite companies are and making a more sustainable swap if you find they’re just not doing enough.

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