The Dark Side of Palm Oil

By Natalie Burnett

Palm oil is unavoidable. It can be found in almost everything: from your favourite foods like pizza and chocolate, to your everyday lipstick and your go to body wash. It is something we seemingly can’t live without, present in almost 50% of packaged products. Unfortunately, palm oil has a dark side. Its production plays a huge role in deforestation destroying habitats, endangering species and contributing to increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There have also been large social implications of palm oil production. So why do we continue to find it in so many of our products?

The production of palm oil is surging. Over the past two decades palm oil production has quadrupled from 15.2m tonnes in 1995 to 62.6m tonnes in 2015. This number is only expected to increase, with the amount quadrupling again to 240m tonnes by 2050. This will only tighten palm oil’s grip over modern society as demand increases and the negative impacts of palm oil are reinforced. However, this increase comes as no surprise, as there are currently 3 billion people in 150 countries using products containing palm oil.

So, what is it about palm oil that makes it so desirable? The oil produced from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. Its ability to remain stable at high temperatures allows for that perfect crispy, crunchy texture of fried food; its anti-oxidation powers allow foods to stay in your cupboard for as long as is necessary; its semi-solid form at room temperature keeps spreads spreadable; and is the lathering foam agent in your shampoo, body wash, or detergent. It even gives that perfect glossy application when putting on your lipstick. The list is endless; however, these almost magical properties don’t come without a price.

Environmental Effects

Palm oil continues to be a huge driver of deforestation, eradicating some of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, including those in Malaysia and Indonesia whose palm plantations produce 85% of the worlds palm oil. Out of the 18 million hectares of palm oil plantations worldwide, it is estimated that 60% of this land was converted directly from primary forest. This has led to the destruction of species like the orangutan, Sumatran rhinos, and the Sumatran tiger, whose habitats can only be found in Southeast Asia. With the loss of their sole habitat, these species are now classified as endangered. As a consequence, orangutan numbers have fallen from 315,00 in 1990 to just 50,000 today. Orangutans are vital for the spread of seeds and are therefore known as the gardeners of the forest. Without orangutans and their role in distributing seeds, this will drastically change the forest, which will impact all the animals and people that depend on the forest for food, water, income, and environmental protection. Furthermore, the production of palm oil is only increasing human-wildlife conflict, as populations of large animals continue to be forced into isolated areas of the natural world.

The removal of rainforest trees is not only destroying habitats, but also resulting in a huge release of GHGs that contribute to climate change. In Indonesia, the largest source of GHG emissions is from fires set to clear rainforests and plant new palm plantations, contributing to around six to eight percent of global emissions. Removal of these trees also disturbs the carbon-rich peat soils anchored by the tree roots. This allows rainwater to wash away the nutrient rich soil, further contributing to the millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases that are emitted. This also has an effect on crop yields, forcing farmers to use expensive fertilisers that further damage the environment. To try and counteract these effects it has been shown that increasing plant diversity on grassland could help to increase the amount of carbon stored in soils and reduce GHG emissions; confirming the importance of conserving orangutans as distributers of seeds.

As well as the devastating effects of palm oil production on the environment, a number of social issues have also arisen. A report by Amnesty International found workers in palm plantations to be carrying out dangerous tasks without proper protection, while others were being paid under the legal minimum wage or handling dangerous chemicals. Among these workers were children of just eight years old. Amnesty stated that in some plantations they discovered workers to be earning as little as $2.50 a day, as well as working unlawfully long hours without any health insurance, job security, or pension. These unjust and inhumane conditions that people are forced to work in is perpetuated by the world’s increasing demand for palm oil.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What Can Be Done?

So, if the effects of producing palm oil are so destructive, why not switch to an alternative vegetable oil? While this might seem like a solution, this would only accelerate deforestation. Palm oil is an extremely efficient crop supplying 35% of the global demand for vegetable oil on just 10% of the land. Replacing palm oil with an alternative vegetable oil would need between 4 to 10 times more land, simply shifting the problem to other habitats and species in other areas of the world. Therefore, it’s safe to say we are stuck with palm oil. So how can we produce it in a way that minimises the devastating environmental and social impacts of its production? Produce it sustainably.

While it was recorded in 2016 that 75% of palm oil imported into the UK is sustainable, this has little impact on the overall sustainability of palm oil sourced. The global demand for palm oil in both Europe and the US together only account for 14% of total world demand, with over half of the worlds demand originating from Asia. India, China, and Indonesia alone account for 40% of globally consumed palm oil. Therefore, it is hugely important that Asian countries also start focusing on obtaining palm oil from sustainable sources. The high levels of palm oil found in Asia are largely due to palm oil’s synonymy with poverty reduction and fuelling of the economy, accounting for 13.7% of Malaysia’s gross income, as well as being Indonesia’s top export. However, due to the corrupt nature of the palm oil industry, local communities rarely see this economic benefit and workers are often taken advantage of, as mentioned previously.

In 2004 The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was developed in response to the rising concerns of the effect palm oil is having on the environment and society. The RSPO encourages producers to obtain their palm oil from sustainable sources, to support smallholders over large plantations and to be transparent about where their palm oil is sourced. By 2014 around 19% of global palm oil production was recognised as sustainable by the RSPO. However, it is very difficult to accurately label a source of palm oil as sustainable due to its incredibly complicated supply chain. Even if just 1% of the palm oil included in a product is sustainably sourced, it can still be deemed ‘certified sustainable’. The RSPO argue it is important to retain a less strict criteria for sustainability in order to encourage manufacturers of retail products to participate in higher levels of sustainable palm oil and realise they can sell this certified palm oil at a higher price. Crucially, Asian governments where palm oil is grown must also enact stricter regulations to force palm oil plantations to become more sustainable.

It is important that we start to support these companies that are working to produce products with sustainably sourced palm oil. To do this, check out the WWF palm oil scoreboard to find out the score of your favourite brands such as L’Oréal and Nestlé. Retailers and manufacturers are given a score out of 22 based on their commitment to producing products with sustainable palm oil that don’t contribute to global warming and the destruction of habitats.

The palm oil industry is far from being truly sustainable, but as more retailers and manufacturers commit to sustainable palm oil we edge further and further away from the dark side of palm oil… But how long are we willing to wait before the devastating impacts of palm oil become irreversible?

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves