The Issue with Palm Oil

The exponential growth of palm oil use in the last fifty years has resulted in massive deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, displacement of indigenous people and near extinction of a number of species.


Liz de Vries

4/7/2022 3 min read

Palm oil gets a bad wrap and for good reason. Its exponential growth in the last fifty years has resulted in huge scale deforestation, pollution, displacement of indigenous people, and the near extinction of a number of species.

Moreover, it’s almost impossible to avoid palm oil, as it is used in many packaged supermarket products.

So what can we do? We did some research to try and find out. Here is what we dug up.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is the edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the tropical oil palm.

Humans have used palm oil for at least 5000 years, but because of their high yield and the relatively low labour costs compared to other vegetable oils, the cultivation of oil palms has grown exponentially in the last 50 years. Palm oil is currently used in a wide range of food, personal care and bio fuel products in almost every country in the world. It is a cheap and versatile ingredient that you’ll find in nearly half of all the products in your supermarket.

If you’re into more detailed statistics: palm oil production quadrupled between 1995 and 2015 (from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes) and is set to quadruple again, to 240m tonnes, by 2050.

Where is it made?

The oil palm is native to West Africa, but there are palm oil plantations all over the tropics in Africa, Asia and South America.

What has gone wrong?

By far the majority (85%) of the world’s palm oil is from Indonesia and Malaysia- where governments are encouraging its production to help lift rural areas out of poverty. As the demand for the crop has increased, so has the land area used to grow oil palms. Ten percent of all the world’s crop land is currently used for palm oil. Unfortunately this increase has led to massive scale deforestation, with rainforests burnt down to make way for palm oil plantations.

Not only do these fires cause devastating greenhouse gas emissions (forest burning is the highest contributor of greenhouse gases in Indonesia, the no. 1 producer of palm oil), they also destroy the homes of some of the world’s most endangered species, such as the Sumatran tiger (critically endangered, fewer than 400 left), the Sumatran rhino (nearly extinct, fewer than 80 left) and the Sumatran orang utan (critically endangered, fewer than 7,500 left), and the expansion of palm oil plantations is linked to the destruction of the homes of indigenous people.

What products have palm oil in them?

WWF lists everyday products, such as: pizza dough, shampoo, chocolate, ice cream, margarine, detergent, biscuits, pre-packed bread, soap, instant noodles and lipstick.

Can we avoid it? How do we know if the products we buy contain palm oil?

That’s another issue. Whether or not deliberately misleading, palm oil and palm oil derivatives are often not clearly listed on product packaging and could appear as at least 25 different names:

  • Elaeis guineensis

  • Etyl palmitate

  • Glyceryl

  • Hydrogenated palm glycerides

  • Octyl palmitate

  • Palm fruit oil

  • Palm kernel

  • Palm kernel oil

  • Palm stearine

  • Palmate

  • Palmitate

  • Palmitic acid

  • Palmitoyl oxostearamide

  • Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3

  • Palmityl alcohol

  • Palmolein

  • Sodium kernelate

  • Sodium laureth sulfate

  • Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate

  • Sodium palm kernelate

  • Stearate

  • Stearic acid

  • Vegetable fat

  • Vegetable oil

Is there a sustainable alternative?

According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a not for profit that unites stakeholders from all the sectors of the palm oil industry, palm oil can be a sustainable crop.

The RSPO has developed global standards, which include environmental and social criteria that companies must comply with to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.

According to the RSPO website: “The RSPO has more than 5,000 members worldwide who represent all links along the palm oil supply chain. They have committed to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.”

Unfortunately the RSPO has many critics, who believe that the organisation has little or no effect on the situation because its standards don’t go far enough, it isn’t truly independent, and doesn’t adequately audit or penalise its members.

Right! So what can we ordinary consumers do?

1. Keep educating yourself

A great start are the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Palm Oil Investigations, and Ethical Consumer websites. All three are super informative.

2. Educate others

Talk to friends and family about your concerns. Young children might like to read ‘There’s A Rang Tan In My Bedroom’ (written by James Sellick with illustrations by Frann Preston-Gannon) and watch the animation on Youtube .

3. Buy products that are Certified Palm Oil Free

There are a few independent organisations who certify palm oil free products:

On Everything Sustainable we recommend the brands Urthly Organics and Luxeluna, who both have certified palm oil free products.

4. Adopt gentle activism

Does your favourite brand use palm oil? Write to them and ask them to commit to creating sustainable products as this is the way of the future.

Image via Pexels