Palm oil pods and seeds

Exploring the True Price of Palm Oil

by Marsha Rakestraw

Last updated 1/31/19

palm oil podsLook in your shopping cart, and you probably see soap and other beauty products, baked goods and other processed foods, perhaps some cleaning products.

What you don’t see is that about half those products contain palm oil, which means they are contributing to the destruction of forests and communities, and the extermination of endangered orangutans and tigers, and other wildlife.

In fact, according to a 2018 editorial, orangutans in parts of Indonesia are on the verge of extinction, as companies burn them and their habitat to make way for palm oil plantations.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible plant oil derived from the fruits of palm trees (it’s extracted from the pulp of the fruit).

It’s a popular cooking oil in Africa and Southeast Asia, and it’s increasingly popular as an ingredient in thousands of food, beauty, and other products, including biofuels.

Palm oil has become such a lucrative and coveted commodity that millions of acres of rainforest and peatlands in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nigeria have been burned and torn down to create commercial palm plantations.

Why is palm oil so popular?

In addition to the jobs created by palm oil plantations and production, palm oil is in high demand for several reasons.

It’s highly versatile, so it can be used for hard, semi-solid, and liquid fats and oils. It’s cheaper to produce than some other kinds of oils.

It doesn’t contain trans fat, so it’s very useful for companies that make processed foods. And palm oil is a popular component of biofuels.

The Effects on People, Animals, and the Earth

While palm oil is a convenient product and a lucrative commodity, its negative effects on people, animals, and the Earth are many. Here is just a sampling:

  • To make room for palm oil plantations, forests and peatlands are cleared. This means both people and animals lose their homes. Many people are evicted from their own land.
  • People in indigenous communities that rely on the forests lose their livelihoods.
  • Draining and burning peatlands and clearing rainforests releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Endangered animals, such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, Asian elephants, and Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, are becoming more endangered as their habitat disappears, and/or they are killed outright.
  • Orangutans, especially, are being burned, shot, kidnapped, and killed in other ways to remove them from their habitats and stop them from destroying young palm trees on the plantations.
  • Plantation workers are usually paid (and sometimes treated) poorly.
  • Human and animal communities find their air, water, and land polluted from fires, chemicals, pesticides, and untreated palm oil-mill effluent.
  • Plantations cause soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers.
  • Plantations hinder animal migration and block travel corridors.
  • Roads and plantations facilitate illegal hunting and poaching.
  • Plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers.

What can we do?

We can choose not to buy products that contain palm oil, but since companies are going to rely on some sort of oil to do the job they want, boycotting may not be the most effective choice. Here are three actions we can take to help do more good and less harm:

  1. Educate ourselves and others about the impact on people, animals, and the planet of palm oil plantations.
  2. Lobby both companies that own palm oil plantations and those that use palm oil in their products to change their practices and implement only truly sustainable, humane policies and practices.
  3. Put pressure on your government officials (and those of countries most involved) to strengthen regulations that will require truly sustainable, humane palm oil operations.

Sources Consulted:

Body Shop Ethics Under Fire After Colombian Peasant Evictions.” The Guardian. 12 September 2009.

Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Cruel Oil:  How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife.” Report. 2005.

Greenpeace UK. “How the Palm Industry is Cooking the Climate.” Report. 2007.

“Orangutans in Indonesia’s Aceh Forest May Die Out in Weeks.”  Reuters.  28 March 2012.

Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an Eco-Nightmare.” The New York Times. 31 January 2007.

For more information:

Lost in Palm Oil.” 43 min. documentary. 2007.

Robinson, David. “Scientists Sound Alarm on Massive Palm Oil Development in Cameroon.” National Geographic. 20 March 2012.

Thompson, Claire. “The Push for Sustainable Cookies Isn’t Over Yet.” Grist. 7 February 2012.

Union of Concerned Scientists. “Palm Oil & Tropical Deforestation: Is There a Sustainable Solution?” 6 February 2012.

World Wildlife Fund. “Palm Oil: How Our Consumer Choices Affect Wildlife.” Video. 2010.

Image via sj liew/Flickr.

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