Palm Oil Production & Its Environmental Impact

Have you noticed how much palm oil has gained attention in recent years? We have, and let us help you understand why it’s become such a topic of environmental discussion.

The fruit of the red palm has been a mainstay of African diets for several thousand years. However, studies in the 1990s started to demonstrate how the oil once extracted from the fruit could be used as a substitute for much less healthy sources that include ingredients such as trans fats. Additionally, the oil is rich in antioxidants including Vitamin E.

Ever since western civilization took notice of this new form of vegetable oil, the race has been on to produce greater and greater quantities of palm oil.

Palm oil is likely a larger part of your life than you realize. For starters, it already exists in 40% or more of the products you use. Those products include everything from foods, medicines, cleaners, detergents, and cosmetics.

Why is Palm Oil Production an Environmental Issue?

The oil palm trees that produce palm oil originate in West Africa but really flourish anywhere there is heat and dependable rainfall. This has caused the palm trees to be planted throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. The areas of greatest expansion are Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, 85% of all palm oil production comes from these two nations.

A selfish effort to cash in on the palm oil demand has caused nations to embark on unprecedented deforestation and habitat destruction. Vast tracks of land have been destroyed to plant this crop. It has been estimated that up to 300 acres is lost to this cause every hour. That’s 300 acres that will no longer scrub climate change-inducing greenhouse gases such as CO2 from the air.

The land being cleared for production is occupied by species already on the brink of extinction. Animals at risk include the orangutan and Sumatran tiger. At the current pace and without intervention, both are expected to be extinct in the wild within the next 10-years.

The land that is cleared is often seized from indigenous peoples. Without their land to survive, most are forced to work on the plantations or starve.

Finally, nations such as Indonesia use fires as a method for clearing rainforest land. As a result, millions of tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere contributing to global warming. This technique has placed Indonesia in third place globally for greenhouse gas emissions. Through these actions, half of Indonesia’s rainforests have already disappeared forever.

Standards For Sustainability

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 with the intent of developing a set of guiding principles and criteria for sustainable development and manufacturing of the oil. Through RSPO efforts, a set of eight principles have been defined for growers. Those include:

  1. Transparency
  2. Compliance with local laws
  3. Commit to long-term viability
  4. Follow best practices
  5. Environmental responsibility & conservation
  6. Fair & equitable treatment of employees
  7. Responsible development
  8. Commit to ongoing improvement

Participation and certification to RSPO standards is entirely voluntary; however it is an important first step towards sustainability.

What Can Be Done?

The best way to curb deforestation is through your actions. Here are some of the things you can do that will make an impact:

  • Educate yourself on all the names used to market palm oil. Sadly, there are way too many to list here (over 200). But we’ve found a source that can help. Here are some of the more common names you might find (produced by Orangutan Foundation International):

  • Ask manufacturers to only use sustainable forms of palm oil. General Mills and Nestle are both taking action after strong pressure from consumers. Procter & Gamble recently followed with plans to remove non-sustainable forms from their supply chain by 2020.
  • Seek products that promote the use of sustainable sources. Look for an RSPO label that denotes a product as coming from sustainable sources. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 2004.
  • Use the app. It will tell you if the products you are using include palm oil.
  • Support organizations such as the Orangutan Foundation International. They fight on the front lines of habitat destruction to save these animals from extinction.

The Bottom Line for Palm Oil

The news isn’t all bad.  Scientists are currently working on a viable alternative to palm oil.  They have discovered a yeast that closely mimics palm oil’s properties.

Also, local Indonesia governments are starting to take more direct actions.  In December of 2015, for example, local officials halted an illegal plantation that has seized over 2,000 acres of fragile land. A project is underway to remove the illegal trees and to allow the forest to regenerate once again!

The expansion of palm oil production is largely supported at the cost of biodiversity and the environment. One third of mammals found in Indonesia are critically endangered because of habitat destruction and deforestation to support palm oil production. While that seems like a world away from your home, just remember that your actions help drive where it goes from here.


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