What Is Palm Oil & Why Is It Destroying Rainforests?

Palm Oil is a wonder oil; it’s as if nature created the perfect product for capitalism. A product that grows incredibly quickly, can be used in everything from shower gel, to ice cream, to animal foods; something that’s relatively cheap and provides a far superior consistency, adhesive and everything else you’d want from an oil.

In fact palm oil is so great it IS in just about everything we consume, use and touch from dawn to dusk. It’s used in fried goods, is ubiquitous in baked packaged goods, it even raises the melting point of ice cream and can be used to bind certain types of materials together. It produces the foam you see when you wash your hair or take a shower, it’s used as a cheap raw material for biofuels and its a popular ingredient in moisturizers, make-up, especially lipstick.

So if you want to boycott palm oil… it might just be harder than you think?

In fact the problem is only set to get worse, with use rocketing. It’s because it’s so ubiquitous and surreptitiously hidden through-out the world in millions of products we use every single day that we hardly even notice its presence. Once we start to look at the impacts more closely and see how much we currently rely on palm oil, we can begin to understand the scale of the problem.

Some of the stats around palm oil use show us that:

  • From 1995 to 2015 production quadrupled to 62.6m tonnes with an additional quadrupling expected to occur up to 2050
  • Palm oil plantations make up 10% of global land used for crops
  • total area of land officially designated to in Indonesia is estimated to be around 6.2 million hectares
  • In Indonesia, the government has pledged to reduce dependency on fossil fuels by 25 per cent and to produce up to 22.26 thousand million litres of biofuel by 2025
  • 3 billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil
  • 200 common ingredients in food and home and personal care products contain palm oil

Palm oil has covertly crept into every aspect of our consumerist lives because it is such a wonder oil and the long arm of capitalism has kept the worst of its environmental legacy shaded in a far-away land, keeping the impacts of its vast plantations hidden from sight and hidden from mind.

Why is Palm Oil So Controversial?

Historically grown in Africa, Palm oil has expanded globally but it is still grown in a very specific region of the world: the tropics. Home to some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, when we see the highly profitable plantations competing with the not-very profitable rainforest we can begin to understand the struggle and devastation that’s underway.

Green Palm, an organisation campaigning for the certifiable and sustainable use of palm oil, highlights the region in which palm oil is grown:

Palm oil (elaeis guineensis) is a tropical oil, growing only within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. These growing regions house vast areas of tropical rainforest rich in biodiversity on the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Demand for edible vegetable oils has grown strongly in recent decades and palm oil plantations have expanded rapidly in number and size to meet the global demand.

Green Palm

Palm oil has expanded directly at the expense and destruction of the rainforest and it continues to do so to this day. An area the size of a football pitch is obliterated every 25 seconds to make way for new plantations.

Borneo has taken the brunt of this onslaught. It’s pristine rainforests have been all but destroyed over the last 50 years in the pursuit of palm oil profits:

Palm Oil Deforestation
Palm Oil Deforestation

It is predicted that if current trends continue palm oil will have destroyed all of Indonesia’s rainforests as soon as 2022.

As the industry has eaten up huge swathes of rainforest across the world, environmental organisations such as Greenpeace have sounded the alarm creating international campaigns to end the use of dirty palm oil.   

And the tragic posterboy for this destruction has become the Orangutan.  As one of the largest primates inhabiting the Indonesian rainforest, and a close relative of our own species, Greenpeace has highlighted the plight of the Orangutan using its cause to raise awareness about the ongoing destruction of its rainforest home. And because Orangutans are found only in the rain forests of the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra the fight to protect their home is more urgent than ever. Without these rainforest islands providing a habitat for the Orangutan their species will become extinct in the wild.

You can sign up to help support the campaign and help end the palm oil destruction.

It’s not just Orangutan’s who face death and destruction; the expansion of plantations has created ongoing disputes with indigenous human populations pitting them against international conglomerates. If palm oil continues to grow we will end up obliterating the world’s rainforests in the pursuit of profit. Using current trends and taking into account the land required we would need 5 million additional hectares of land. And that’s not even taking into account the myriad other uses that will, and are, being discovered for palm oil.

Orangutan

The Indonesian Government has adopted a weak stance in protecting it’s rainforests, in fact encouraging the palm oil industry, facilitating it as an economic driver and watering down protections to help raise export and drive profits.

However, there are two sides to every coin and two sides to every story – the development in Indonesia is being driven by huge demand in Europe, demand for all of the products and industries highlighted above.

Initially driving this huge demand the EU’s switch to biofuels has threatened to push the extinction of the Orangutan and its rainforest home over the edge and only recently has the European Union recognised that the palm oil industry might be unsustainable. In relation to the use of palm oil as a biofuel, it has been reported in Forbes:

Though it was initially heralded as the main tool by which the EU could decarbonise road transport and given generous subsidies under the bloc’s Renewable Energy Directive over a decade ago, the feeling about traditional biofuels has since changed.

There has been increasing evidence that biofuels from agricultural crops take up land that would otherwise be used for growing food, which has had an effect on food prices. Studies have shown it is also causing growers to raze forests, which results in more carbon in the air. Environmentalists have been pushing the EU to ban these crop-based biofuels and move instead to incentivising “second-generation” biofuels made from things like algae.

Dave Keating, Forbes

This legislation, though well-intentioned, is a drop in the ocean compared to the growing demand and the EU’s back-peddling is a case of too little action, too late. Palm oil is everywhere and it would require much greater political will and in-depth action in order to unravel its myriad influences from the products we use, eat and purchase every day. Understanding which products palm oil is in is difficult given that companies will seek to hide its inclusion in all manner of ways. More than half of the global demand for comes from Asia, with India, China and Indonesia accounting for up to 40% of consumption worldwide, and because awareness of the destructive power of palm oil is not yet high enough in these regions, then limiting European and Western consumption will not really create much of a dent in the industry as a whole.

Assessing global demand, realising the extent to which the tendrils of the palm oil industry extend and understanding the industry as a whole paints the picture of a perfect storm in which rainforest and the species who inhabit them are the ultimate victims.

There is a limited degree of space in which palm oil grows around the world: 10 degrees North of the Equator and 10 degrees south. A total of 20 degrees in which the world’s most diverse, richest and most varied number of plant and animal species live and thrive.

Is it really worth destroying all of that for a brand of ice cream that doesn’t melt at a higher temperature or a lipstick and has slightly better consistency?

You can find out how your favourite brands rate with the WWF’s palm oil rating tool.

Other Consequences of the Palm Oil Problem

It clear that deforestation, as a direct consequence of the expansion of palm oil plantations, will have devastating consequences both for all of the plant-life and animal species that inhabit them… but are there other more subtle threats that the palm oil industry poses to the health of our planet?

Palm Oil Will Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Studies show that the clearing of rainforest massively contributes to the increase of Greenhouse Gases. There is no other human crop that has a carbon footprint has big as the palm oil industry.

Image by tristantan

And the Union of Concerned Scientists has explained:

“When deforestation and peatland drainage occur to make way for oil palm plantations, the sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. As demand for increases, tropical forests and peatlands—and the people and species that rely on them—are put at risk. For all these reasons, it is important to transform the industry by making smart decisions about where and how palm oil is produced.”

Union of Concerned Scientists

The International Council on Clean Transportation has taken an even closer look, analysing and predicting the actual levels of CO2 that are released as a result of the palm oil industry. They calculated global CO2 emissions to be 25-36 billion tonnes CO2e per year from 2000-2015 and they stated:

The worst part of this scenario is that the massive climate impact of palm oil is completely unnecessary. A good chunk of palm oil is used to produce biofuels, where it actually increases GHG emissions from the transport sector compared to petroleum. No other major crop in the world has a carbon footprint as bad as palm. And even palm oil itself could be produced much more sustainably if the Indonesian government would enforce moratoriums on deforestation and peat conversion. Global demand continues to rise, and if nothing is done to change course, the palm oil problem is going to make it increasingly hard to meet any kind of climate target.”

What Are The Solutions And Alternatives to Palm Oil?

Palm oil is cheap, it grows quickly and it can be used in just about everything. Coming up with an alternative will be no easy task.


Can a sustainable form be produced? The question around whether a sustainable form of development can exist remains to be solved. Yet many organisations have been working to produce a sustainable form of palm, but sustainability in the palm oil industry means increasing the products price, whilst decreasing its availability. Minimizing its environmental footprint and impact on rainforests, species like the Orangutan, and Indigenous peoples means the costs go up and this puts a sustainable version at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to the dirty side of the industry in which producers and buyers are not as ethically minded.

Equally the definition of sustainability has been disputed for quite some time. GreenPalm has facilitated the creation of a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil of which 40% of the world’s palm oil producers are members. There vision is to:

  • Advance the production, procurement, finance and use of sustainable products
  • Develop, implement, verify, assure and periodically review credible global standards for the entire supply chain of sustainable palm oil
  • Monitor and evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of the uptake of sustainable palm oil in the market
  • Engage and commit all stakeholders throughout the supply chain, including governments and consumers.

However, this model has been criticised for not going far enough, offering false solutions and failing to facilitate meaningful change.

Palm oil could be grown in other parts of the world; countries with large grasslands along the eqautor and in the so-called goldilocks zone. But it would be difficult to persuade the Indonesian Government to part with its cash cow; one of its main economic drivers that is helping to increase prosperity for millions of Indonesians across the tropics.

We know on its current course Palm Oil is not sustainable. Once all the rainforests have been cut down, all the Orangutans have been made extinct the indigenous peoples displaced from their former homes it will by then be too late. We will have destroyed the last remaining remnants of the Indonesian Rainforest, the Orangutan will no longer swing from tree-top to tree-top and by then we may have woken up to the fact that palm oil is not particularly healthy nor essential to our daily lives. We need a solution and one that can be implemented as soon as possible in order to halt the destruction. Unfortunately this kind of magic doesn’t exist in reality. The solution, like the problem, is much more complex.

New Technology = New Oils?

One of the key solutions is highlighted by A.T. Kearney in a collaborative endeavor with the Clinton Global Initiative, whose own mission is ‘to turn ideas into action, to convene global and emerging leaders to create and implement solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges’.

This collaboration proposes New Oils For A New World presenting palm oil as a 20th Century hangover, showing it in a similar light t the use of fossil fuels, something to be phased out at the dawn of a new era and a course of action requiring the investment of new technologies and industries to resign this dirty, rainforest-destroying industry to the dustbin of environmental catastrophies.

In theory it sounds great, the indisputable magic bullet, and the research recognises new oils can indeed be game changers with the potential to provide humanity with the the next generation of useful oils. One such oil has been identified as Heterotrophic Algal Oil which passes the industry benchmarks around affordability, acceptability and sustainability. But if we don’t start recognising the economic, cultural and natural benefit of the world’s remaining rainforest then the problem is bound to rear its ugly head when some other new wonder product is discovered.

As the collaborative research from A.T. Kearney shows the time to act is now:

“The natural evolution of these industries may well bring these oils to market, but it could be a matter of decades. In the meantime, the world’s resources, biodiversity, communities, and the environment will continue to face unrelenting pressure.”

A.T. Kearny

The solutions are complex and varied and meanwhile the rainforest of Borneo in Indonesia face continued devastation.

We must address the use of palm oil in so many products, we must fully embrace an acceptable level of sustainable palm oil that is properly regulated and controlled. We need to unite all industry players, producers and consumers together to drive investment and development of new oils that could save our rainforests and the Orangutan’s who live there.

It’s only through the power of collaboration that we can we start to change the public, national and international mindset. We need to continue highlighting the work of organisations such as Greenpeace and the WWF but we also need the islands of Indonesia and other equatorial countries the world over to participate; to realise how beautiful and important their natural resources are; to prioritise them over the development of cheap, ugly, destructive and unsustainable palm oil and to recognise that the beauty and life of the equatorial rainforest is inestimably more valuable to the world in the face of devastating climate change and global warming.