Thursday, August 22, 2019

Palm oil and the environment; a complicated relationship

Editor's note: We received a request from a follower to provide some insight into palm oil - timely, given that it August 19 marked International Orangutan Day. Here is the TL;DR version: It's a complicated issue. The oil palm is the most efficient producer of vegetable oil in the world, but its agriculture has significant environmental impacts - including deforestation and terrible impacts on endangered species like orangutans. One of the surest ways of reducing the impact of palm oil agriculture is to purchase products that use sustainable oil palm agriculture. Read on for more. /ms

Article by: Tyler Linwood

What is palm oil?

You may or may not be familiar with the name, but chances are that you're more familiar with this versatile product than you know. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree. In fact, it is the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world. The reasons for this include:

  • It is a relatively healthy form of fat to use in processed foods
  • It is relatively cheap to produce
  • The oil palm tree is highly productive compared to other oil producing plants. 

Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to southeastern Asia in the 19th century. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest producers of palm oil, and together account for 85% of the world's palm oil supply.

What products commonly contain palm oil?

Read more, including what you can do, after the jump.

Palm oil has a number of characteristics which make it a useful product throughout multiple industries. Just a few of palm oil's additional benefits include:

  • it remains semi-solid at room temperature which is ideal for spreadable items
  • it is resistant to oxidization and can therefore give products a longer shelf-life
  • it's stable at high temperatures which lends itself to fried foods
  • it's odourless and colourless
  • it acts as a foaming agent in soaps and other products

These characteristics have led to palm oil's usage in common products, including pizza dough, margarine, chocolate, bread, ice cream, detergent, lipstick, shampoo, candles, toothpaste, and many more.

Due to its inclusion in such a wide variety of everyday products, it can be a nearly impossible task to avoid consuming palm oil in some capacity on a daily basis.

How can you tell whether a product contains palm oil?

It can be a tough task to identify whether or not a product even contains palm oil in the first place as palm oil can go by a number of names. Even if the ingredients list of your favourite chocolate bar doesn't contain the word "palm", there may still be palm oil hiding in there somewhere. A few common names that palm oil can go by on your ingredients list are:

- Palm Oil
- Vegetable Oil
- Vegetable emulsifier
- Vegetable glycerin
- Sodium palmate
- Saturated Fatty acid
- And over 200 other name variations

What are the environmental impacts of palm oil?

Despite its benefits, palm oil is the subject of an intense ongoing controversy due to the environmental destruction that has occurred in its production. Millions of hectares of tropical rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia have been deforested in order to create space for new oil palm plantations, as the soil and climate found in these tropical regions are ideal for the growth of oil palm trees.

Endangered species. Incredibly biodiverse natural ecosystems, which once provided the habitats of already endangered species such as the orangutan, pygmy elephant, Sumatran tiger, and Sumatran rhino, have been replaced with monocultures incapable of supporting any of the native flora and fauna. These animal species have become further endangered as a result. The orangutan in particular has seen its population drop by over 100,000 in the past 16 years due to oil palm plantation expansion.

Rainforest depletion. The destruction of these long-standing rainforests has also resulted in large amounts of carbon being released into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change. The rainforests now being cleared for oil palm plantations previously acted as carbon sinks, extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to produce the abundance of organic material found in their ecosystems. This carbon dioxide is re-released into the atmosphere when these rainforests are burned. The rainforest's function as a carbon sink is now lost, meaning that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere overall.

Recently, international awareness of the environmental effects of oil palm plantations has increased. Poignant, and sometimes controversial, depictions of the environmental damage caused by oil palm plantations have been spread widely on many social media platforms, such as this advertisement from British company Iceland Foods that gained attention after it was banned from being aired in the country.

So what's the solution?

Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to the issues caused by our demand for palm oil.

Use other types of oil in manufacturing. One commonly proposed solution is to use products that contain a vegetable oil other than palm oil. Although this might prevent further deforestation from occurring in Malaysia and Indonesia, it may not be desirable from an environmental perspective as the oil palm is much more efficient than any other oil producing plant. At least four times as much land is needed to produce an amount of other common vegetable oils, such as coconut, sunflower, or rapeseed, compared to the amount of land required to produce the same amount of palm oil. Therefore, increased demand for these other vegetable oils could simply result in environmental destruction occurring on an even greater scale in other areas of the world.

Avoid products that use palm oil. Another potential solution is to only use products that do not contain palm oil or any other alternative vegetable oil. Although this may prevent some of the environmental damage associated with the production of these oils, this is also not be a desirable solution as there are millions of individuals in Malaysia and Indonesia, including small-scale farmers and whole rural communities, whose livelihoods now depend on the production of palm oil.

Use sustainably-sourced palm oil. A final commonly proposed solution is to only use products that contain sustainably-sourced palm oil. Although it can be difficult to determine whether or not a product contains sustainably-sourced palm oil, a number of designations and certifications are emerging which are trying to simplify this task for consumers.


Even though it may seem bleak, there are ways you can help alleviate the harmful effects impacts of the palm oil industry on the world today:

  • Contact the manufacturers and producers of your favourite products and tell them to use palm oil from sustainable sources. 
  • Purchase products that contain Certified Sustainable Palm Oil
  • Support the effort of environmental advocacy groups to reforest areas that have been deforested for oil palm plantations, and to conserve remaining wildlife habitats. Check out Ecosia, the Rhino and Forest Fund, and MyClimate!
  • Help raise awareness of this important issue! 

If more people around the world are aware of what is occurring, it's more likely that the industries responsible will respond and further bolster its sustainability programs in a way that balances the interests of those whose livelihoods depend on the palm oil industry with those of the environment, including those of the endangered species currently being put at risk and all species around the world that are effected by global climate change.

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