What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is commonly used in household products. The palm oil tree, Elaeis guineensis, flourishes in humid tropics and is farmed in Africa, Asia, North America and South America. 85% of the palm oil that is produced is exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil is made from the flesh of the fruit of
the tree, while Palm Oil Kernal is made from extracting the oil of the fruit’s seed.
Palm oil is used in about 50% of products that are purchased and are often used on a daily basis. It is used in prepackaged foods, cosmetics, soaps, cleaners, and more. Outside of household products, palm oil is also used in some livestock feed as palm kernel cake and is often used to fatten the livestock.
Photo of palm fruit by Mazidi Abd Ghani, WWF
How has palm oil effected the environment?
Due to the high demand and economic value of palm oil, large areas of tropical forest are being deforested in Indonesia. Often, the land is deforested by slash and burn techniques, which sends smog and air pollution to cities hundreds of miles away in Malaysia and Singapore. Additionally, deforestation causes an increase in greenhouse gases. The natural peat swamp forests in Indonesia serve as a carbon sink, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and converting it into peat. As a result of deforestation, the drainage of these carbon-rich soils have massively increased the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, by taking down large areas of natural forest and replacing it with palm oil plantations, the vegetation has less of an ability to uptake carbon from the atmosphere.
Photo by Hartmut Jungius, WWF
What about the wildlife?
Deforestation from palm oil production has put an increasing strain on the biodiversity of the areas as well as endangered species that inhabit the forests. Animals that are affected by palm oil production include the orangutan (endangered), Sumatran elephant (critically endangered), Bornean pygmy elephant (endangered/critically endangered), Sumatran rhino (critically endangered), Sumatran tiger (critically endangered), and more. Species such as the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan are experiencing mass habitat loss due to deforestation. Many animals also die in the burning techniques often used in unsustainable palm tree harvesting.
Photo of Sumatran orangutan by Anup Shah, WWF
What can you do to help?
As a starter, begin by looking at the products in your household. Palm oil often hides in prepackaged or processed foods, such as candy, granola bars, cereals, and more. Along with this, palm oil is found in products made my popular cosmetic and personal care companies. Many of us have the power to choose the products we put in our shopping cart. Click the link below to see commonly purchased items that may contain palm oil.
It is important to note that not all palm oil is bad. The trees that are grown for the production of palm oil are highly productive and produce and yield more crop than many other plants that are used for oil production. As a result, more land may need to be used if we switched to a different oil. In addition, palm oil also provides a living wage for around 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia. Instead, it may prove to be more helpful if we supported companies that source their palm oil in a sustainable fashion. While not all palm oil is bad, deforestation from the production of palm oil has caused massive environmental implications in tropical areas, such as Indonesia.
How do you know if the palm oil product you are buying was produced sustainably?
The RSPO, or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, has developed a set of environmental and social requirements in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). You can find the logo featured below on products that have been evaluated by the RSPO and meet their criteria.
If you would like to learn about this issue further, follow the links provided below.
Let’s continue to become more aware of our global impact and what we can do to be better stewards of the environment.
Conservation Made Simple