What Is Palm Oil and Should It Always Be Avoided?

Palm oil. It’s virtually impossible to exist in the modern world without hearing about this controversial substance, and the harm caused during its production. Whether you’re aware of it or not, almost every aspect of your life probably contains this stuff in some form. You have likely heard people calling to boycott it, citing rainforest destruction and conservation of endangered species, but is it that simple?

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. This is a plant which originates from the west coast of Africa, which Europeans took to Indonesia to try growing it there, due to poor success attempting to industrially farm it in Africa. At first, the plants were pollinated by hand, which was a labour intensive and inefficient process, however, in 1981 the African oil palm weevil, Elaeidobius kamerunicus, was introduced and this significantly increased production.

How Is Palm Oil Produced?

The oil palm tree starts to produce fruit after 2 to 3 years and then produces fruit continuously for the rest of its life, which is usually 25 to 30 years. After this age the plants grow too high and are too difficult to harvest so they are injected with pesticide to kill them and then bulldozed, making way for new plants. The oil palm trees are mainly grown in deforested areas.

When the palm fruit is harvested, they are taken to factories where they are steamed to soften them, and then pressed to extract the palm oil and palm kernel oil, which come from the fruit and the seed respectively. After this has occurred, the oil may be subjected to more refining processes, depending upon what the desired outcome products are. The oil may also be subjected to fractioning, a process where the palm oil is separated into its liquid and solid parts.

Where Is Palm Oil Found?

Palm oil is found in almost everything you can think of. Cookies, chocolate, cakes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo. Whether we’re talking about health and beauty or food and drink, the list goes on and on. In fact, it is estimated that around 50% of all packaged products you can find in a supermarket contain palm oil.

Three quarters of all palm oil produced is used in food. Most processed foods have some fat added to them, and in most cases the fat used is palm oil. Chocolate often contains palm oil as the manufacturers substitute some of the cocoa butter for the cheaper palm oil to cut costs. Palm oil is often used as a frying oil by fast food restaurants, and is also a common cooking oil in Asia, where its use has increased as areas have become more developed. Palm oil is also found in soaps and a variety of other cosmetic products, and in many medicines and supplements. In some countries palm oil is also used in animal feed, to feed the ever growing livestock population, and is also used as a biofuel.

Why Is Palm Oil Used?

Palm oil has some great properties that make it the vegetable oil of choice for many industries. It is a crop with an extremely high yield, producing on average 4 tonnes of oil per hectare per year, which is massively better than the next highest yielding alternative, rapeseed, which produces only 0.75 tonnes of oil per year per hectare. Due to its efficiency, oil palm plantations produce around 35% of the world’s supply of vegetable oil whilst taking up less than 10% of the land used for vegetable oil production. This efficiency makes palm oil very cheap to produce compared to other vegetable oils. Palm oil also requires lower amounts of fertilizer and pesticides than other oil crops, cutting costs further. It’s production costs are lowered even further by the fact that it is grown in tropical climates, meaning that it can be grown in developing countries where labour costs are lower.

As well as its cheap production cost, it has several properties that make it very useful for a variety of different purposes. It is solid at room temperature due to its high proportion of saturated fats, which is a required property for the production of many processed foods. Other vegetable oils can only achieve this by being subjected to a process known as hydrogenation. Palm oil also has what is known as high oxidative stability, which basically means that it is less susceptible to being damaged by particles known as free radicals, and this gives it a long shelf life, meaning products containing palm oil can be stored for a long time without going bad, reducing waste and costs. Another property of palm oil that gives it a benefit over some other oils is that it doesn’t have a distinct taste, which means it doesn’t affect the flavour of the product it is added to. Many companies moved to using palm oil partially due to it being seen as a healthier substitute to beef fat, which was previously used in products that required solid fats.

Some palm oil derivatives are emulsifiers and surfactants, which are important in many cosmetic products such as soaps. Emulsifiers allow oil and water to mix, and surfactants remove oil and grease from a surface. These properties mean that palm oil is very useful in these products.

Why Is Palm Oil a Problem?

Most of us probably already have an idea that palm oil is pretty bad news for the environment, but how exactly does it negatively impact nature and what kinds of effect does the production of palm oil actually have on wider issues such as wildlife and for that matter, on workers?

Impacts of Palm Oil on the Environment

The main reason that comes to your mind is probably deforestation, and for a good reason. Palm oil plantations are one of the world’s major drivers of deforestation. It is the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two largest producers of palm oil. 56% of all deforestation on the island of Borneo, which is shared between the two countries, is due to palm oil plantations, and an area roughly the size of Germany has been deforested throughout the whole of the Indonesian archipelago.

An investigation of palm oil expansion between 1990 and 2005 found that 60% of the expansion occurred in primary tropical rainforest, meaning that fresh rainforest was being deforested. Palm oil companies generally prefer to clear primary rainforest rather than situate their plantations on degraded areas or grasslands, because then they don’t need to use as much fertilizer because the forests are cleared using slash-and-burn, and the ash from burning fertilizes the soil. The cost of cutting down the forest is also subsidized by the profit that can be gained from selling the wood.

Slash-and-burn causes air pollution, due to the smoke produced, and the deforested areas suffer from soil erosion due to the absence of tree roots. A lot of the deforested areas previously contained peat swamps, and draining these leads to greenhouse gas emissions as they are carbon sinks, meaning they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it. The draining, burning, and conversion of these peat swamps to palm oil plantations has caused Indonesia to become the third highest CO2 emitting country in the world.

Impacts of Refining Palm Oil

Yet more greenhouse gases are emitted during the refining phase of palm oil production. Refineries produce wastewater as a part of the refining process, and this wastewater contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The methane-containing wastewater emitted by a typical palm oil refinery in one year has an environmental impact equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 cars!

Impacts of Palm Oil on Wildlife

Many endangered species are having their habitats destroyed by deforestation for palm oil plantations. Of course, the animal that most springs to mind is the orangutan, of which there are estimated to be fewer than 80,000 remaining in the wild. Other species which are being affected by the deforestation impacts of palm oil include Sumatran elephants (3,000 remaining), Bornean pygmy elephants (1,500 remaining), Sumatran tigers (400 remaining), and Sumatran rhinos (80 remaining).

However, habitat destruction from deforestation isn’t the only way that palm oil production affects these endangered species. They also suffer from increased conflict with humans due to their being less available habitats away from human settlements, and displaced Orangutans are often killed when they enter palm oil plantations in search of food, as they are seen as pests. These species also suffer from increased poaching, as roads are built to allow vehicles to get to and from the plantations, and these roads also make it easier for poachers to access areas that they previously couldn’t.

Impacts of Palm Oil on Workers

Wildlife and the environment aren’t the only things affected by palm oil, it also has a large impact on humans, both good and bad. The palm oil industry employs millions of people in developing countries, providing jobs to people who otherwise might not have one, and it drives the economic development of these countries. Some people see palm oil as a path out of poverty.

However, it of course also comes with a more negative side. Workers are often exploited and paid poorly, made to work in poor conditions, and without proper health and safety regulations. Child labour is also sometimes used on the plantations. There is also conflict between the palm oil corporations and local communities over land rights, and some people are evicted from the land that is rightfully theirs in order to turn it into palm oil plantations.

Why You Might Want to Avoid Products Containing Palm Oil

Criticisms and Controversies

There are many people and organisations that call for us to boycott products which contain palm oil, however, there are some controversial aspects to this. The economies of many developing countries depend on palm oil production, and if this sector of their economies were to disappear it would have negative impacts on the whole country. Also, there are many people who depend on the palm oil industry for their livelihood, who would be left with nothing if the palm oil industry disappeared.

Another issue is that if palm oil were to be boycotted, there would still be a need for vegetable oils, and these oils would have to be sourced from other oil crops. Therefore this wouldn’t fix the issues of palm oil, it would just change the crop that causes the issue. It is therefore important that any regulations that are imposed on palm oil, such as EU policies which limit the use of palm oil for biofuel, must also apply to oils from other crops.

Alternatives to Palm Oil

There are numerous other crops which produce oil, such as rapeseed, sunflower, coconut, corn, canola, olive, soybean, peanut, and many others. However, there is an issue with using any of these as an alternative to palm oil. This is due to oil palm’s efficiency. Basically, oil palm crops can produce the required amount of oil in a smaller area of land than any of the other crops can. In fact, if other crops were used, it would take 4 – 10 times the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil!

Some of the other oil crops are grown in other parts of the world, however, all this would result in is the problems of deforestation and biodiversity loss being moved to other areas of the world. Therefore alternative crops are not a viable solution as overall they would cause more ecosystem destruction than palm oil production currently does, and would just shift the problems elsewhere.

Does Sustainably Harvested Palm Oil Actually Make a Difference?

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004. It sets out the best practices for the sourcing and production of palm oil. It is the largest independent third party standard for sustainable production of palm oil and aims to make sustainable palm oil the norm. It’s guidelines state that palm oil producers must respect local people, ensure that no high conservation value areas are destroyed, and minimise their environmental impacts.

If members do not submit their required reports to the RSPO then their membership can be terminated. These reports make it far more difficult for companies to greenwash, as external organisations can analyse the information and rank the companies according to what they are actually doing, rather than what they have promised to do.

However, the RSPO receives a lot of criticism. It doesn’t actually question the expansion of plantations, and many people feel that it isn’t ever possible to attach the word sustainable to an industry that involves large scale monoculture and the water, land, and pesticide use that goes along with that. Also, the mandate to not destroy any high conservation value areas does not prevent the destruction of peat swamps or secondary forest.

The RSPO has over 4000 members, however, being a member doesn’t necessarily mean that they are certified as a sustainable palm oil producer, it just means that they have a time-bound commitment to become more sustainable, and they must report on their progress. There are several kinds of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). There are two kinds that require a stronger commitment, called Identity Preserved and Segregated, and there are two kinds that just support sustainable palm oil, called Mass Balance and Book and Claim, and these are easier and cheaper to achieve.

How to Identify Products Containing Palm Oil

Identifying palm oil in a product can be extremely difficult, because as well as palm oil itself, products can contain a multitude of palm oil derivatives, for which there are 463 names. An EU law introduced in 2014 mandated that food items containing palm oil must be labelled as such, however, this doesn’t apply to palm oil derivatives, which make up around 60% of palm oil use. However, the four root words palm-, stear-, laur-, and glyc- can be used to spot over half of the derivatives, although ingredients containing these words aren’t always made from palm oil, but you can contact the company to find out.

What You Can Do to Make Better Choices

Is It Better to Avoid Palm Oil Altogether Or Opt For Sustainable Palm Oil?

Avoiding palm oil altogether isn’t necessarily the answer, because it comes with some issues. Oil would still need to be produced and would be sourced from less efficient crops, meaning more land would be used for farming oil crops. It would also cause job losses in the palm oil industry and would harm the economy of many developing countries. It’s better to opt for sustainable palm oil, whilst ensuring that it is actually sustainable and not misleadingly labelled. However, for choosing sustainable palm oil to be more effective the RSPO needs to improve their standards and monitoring of their members.

What Can I Do to Reduce the Harm Caused by Palm Oil

When buying products made with sustainable palm oil, it’s important to check if it really is sustainable. If it says CSPO you can check the type of certification to see what strength of commitment the company has made. You can also learn to spot palm oil derivatives and check if those are included in the certification. If a product isn’t using sustainable palm oil, you can urge the company to switch. It’s also important to be aware of greenwashing and not fall for it, if a company says something, question it.