What's the deal with palm oil and what can you do about it?

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible oil coming from palm fruit grown on the African palm oil tree. While these originate from Western Africa,they can grow in most tropical environmental where heat and rainfall are abundant. Hence, you can nowadays find palm oil trees in most part of the world though 85% of worldwide production originates from Indonesia and Malaysia. In total, tens of millions of palm oil enter markers around the world each year and account for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production, making it the world’s most popular oil!


Palm oil is everywhere

Thanks to its high versatility and low production cost, palm oil can be found in most of transformed products. From chocolate paste to pre-prepared micro wave meals to shampoos and fragrances, it can be found in around over 50% of household products and is also increasingly used as a biofuel.The reason it’s so widely used is because it

·      Uses 10 times less land than other major vegetable oils

·      Is highly productive per hectare (up to 4,000kg of palm oil)

·      Requires less fertiliser, fewer pesticides and stores more carbon than other oil crops and is GM free

All of this added to low production cost makes it the ideal raw materials for agri businesses, cosmetics brands and other industrial companies.

Palm oil controversies

However, despite its business qualitites, palm oil production has a HUGE impact on the environment and the local communities in its production countries (mostly Indonesia and Malaysia such as:

  1. On the Environment:

·      To make room for palm oil plantations, agri business companies are clearing tropical forests at an alarming rate, even though it might be illegal in some cases. According to a report by the European Commission, palm oil production is responsible for 8%% of deforestation worldwide and 40% in Indonesia alone, which is home to one of the three greatest and oldest rain forests on earth (the other two being the Amazon and the Congo Bassin)

·      Moreover, vast areas of peatlands (carbon-rich swamps) are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, something through burning. This releases huge amounts of carbon dioxyde into the atmosphere which is responsible for climate change. This has made Indonesia the third largest global emitter of greenhouse gases.

2. On biodiversity: 

·      The large scale deforestation to make room of plantations are causing loss of habitat for sometimes critically endangered species including the orang outan, sumatran elephants and tigers but also dozens of others

·      In the past 10 years, the orang outan population has decreased by 50% as the result of habitat loss

·      The replacement of dense tropical forests with plantations increases the accessibility of animals to poachers and human-wildlife conflicts with local villagers. Thousands are killed each year and the killing of adults often leads to babies being sold as pets or used for entertainment in neighboring countries

3. On local communities:

·      Some companies have been ceizing the land of indigenous communities with sometimes the complicity of local government to turn them into palm oil concessions

·      Moreover, the industry has been linked to major human rights violations such as child labor, exposure to hazardous chemicals, unpaid overtime, pressure on employees etc.

·      The Free, Prior and Informed Consent policy possesses by many companies is often non applied and dozens of land disputes are ongoing throughout Malaysia and Indonesia

The sector’s unconvincing solution

To tackle those issues, the WWF partnered up with major actors from the sectors and created in 2004 the Roundatble on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Nowadays the RSPO has more than 3,000 members worldwide who represents all links along the palm oil supply chain.

Yet, despite this initiative that unites oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, NGOs etc, the palm oil industry has suffered considerable scandals in the past year, many including RSPO certified companies.

Reports by Greenpeace: Dirty Bankers & Licence to Kill and Rainforest Action Network: The Human Cost of Conflict Palm Oil

However, I feel it's fundamental to say that boycotting palm oil a 100% is not the solution. Palm oil is more efficient than other alternative oils that require much more land, fertilizers and water to grow. Moreover, it helps millions of smallholders in Indonesia and Malaysia earn a living.

So what can you do?

1.   Find out: an educated consumer will have a mindful consumption and be able to share its knowledge with others.

Here you can find more information:

Say No to Palm Oil Campaign

WWF Palm Oil Campaign

Rainforest Alliance Conflict Palm Oil Campaign

2.  Reduce your consumption (less demand necessarly means less production)

3.  Learn to identify it: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol ALL MEAN PALM OIL!

4.   Get political: sign petitions that deal with palm oil and ask your favorite brands to ditch conflict palm oil in favor of sustainable certified palm oil. WWF's scorecard is an excellent resources that scores major brands regarding their palm oil consumption!

·      Spread the word! Share the impacts of palm oil with your entourage and tell them to be mindful of their consumption