The Truth About The Palm Oil Industry

Soap. Lipstick. Pizza. Peanut Butter. Vegan Cheese. Shampoo. Animal Feed. Instant Noodles. Baby Formula. Laundry Detergent. Biodiesel. Ice Cream. Margarine. Potato Chips. That’s a pretty wide array of products, what could they possibly have in common?

You wouldn't believe it, but all of these products are often made with one common ingredient: palm oil. You may have heard horror stories about palm oil, but if it’s so bad, why is it used in so many products? Your first instinct might be to assume that it’s some harmful additive, but that’s actually not the case at all. Not only is it safe for use in a wide variety of products, it’s considered superior to similar vegetable oils for a myriad of reasons. So why the uproar? The concerns about palm oil are purely environmental; the harvesting of it is devastating to the tropical forest areas in which it grows. 

Palm oil is derived one of two ways from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Crude palm oil comes from pressing the fruit, while palm kernel oil comes from the stone of the fruit. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought over to South-East Asia just over a century ago. Indonesia and Malaysia now dominate the supply of the oil, producing 85% of the global supply, with 42 more countries picking up the rest

At first glance, the benefits of using palm oil seem staggering. For starters, it’s a remarkably efficient crop. It’s perennial and evergreen, meaning it can be harvested throughout the year. The tree can thrive in soil that other plants can’t, and takes less preparation. Most importantly, it has the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop; five times higher than rapeseed, six times as much as sunflower, and eight times as much as soybeans! This means much less land is required to produce massive amounts. The lower cost of production compared to any other vegetable or animal fat has helped secure palm oil’s place as a worldwide staple.

The oil itself is extremely versatile, and has many desirable properties. 

  • It’s odorless and colorless therefore it doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. 
  • It’s stable at high temperatures, making it a widely used cooking oil replacing less-healthy oils such as soya. 
  • In today’s market where plant-based cosmetic products are viewed more favorably than animal-based, it was seen as a perfect replacement for the animal fat used in cosmetics in the past. In fact, 70% of personal care products have a palm oil derivative! 
  • It’s highly spreadable, making it perfect for not only lipstick and hand lotion, but also food spreads like peanut butter. 
  • Palm oil contains significantly less saturated fat than butter and no trans fat at all. As more information became available about the health effects of saturated and trans fats, companies sought a replacement for butter and margarine in baked and processed foods. 
  • While other vegetable oils, such as soybean and rapeseed perform just as well, palm oil’s low cost makes it one of the most common biofuels in Europe. 
  • It functions as a natural preservative, and can extend the shelf life of processed foods it’s added to. It actually raises the melting temperature of ice cream!
  • Palm oil can be used as an adhesive to hold together fibreboard, and the palm trunks and fronds can be made into plywood.
  • Oil palm ash can be used as a replacement for concrete. 

It’s easy to see what makes palm oil such an attractive option in so many industries. So then why all the worry? It seems like palm oil is a wonder product, how could it possibly have a downside?

The popularity of palm oil across the world means that despite the efficiency of the crop, large swaths of land are required to keep up with demand, and everybody wants a piece of the pie. But converting thousands of acres of tropical forest to make way for vast monoculture palm oil plantations has had plenty of negative effects. For starters, any monocrop has a drastic effect on the biodiversity of the larger area. Think about how plants grow in nature; you would never find an entire field of apple trees that hadn’t been planted there by someone. In the circle of life, organisms all depend on each other. Around 90% of the world's oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth. In these places, there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.

The tropical forests in question happen to be critical habitat for some of the world’s most endangered species. Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, pygmy elephants and orangutans among others, have seen their natural habitat shrink over time. Even wildlife reserves aren’t safe for them. At Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, which was established to provide habitat for the endangered Sumatran tiger, 43% of the land has been taken over by illegal palm oil plantings.

To make room for these plantations, fires are set to clear the land of all other life. This creates a cascading series of negative effects. Animals fleeing the fire and searching for habitat can cross paths with humans, making for potentially dangerous encounters for all involved. The burning of these carbon-rich  forests releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. This process is actually the number one source of greenhouse emissions in Indonesia. The smoke and haze from these blazes have health consequences throughout Southeast Asia. 

But palm oil isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The demand for palm oil globally is massive, and it only keeps growing. Production quadrupled between 1995 and 2015, and it’s expected that demand will quadruple again by 2050. Currently, palm oil plantations account for 10% of global cropland. But trying to replace palm with any other vegetable oil creates more problems than it solves, since none of its competitors boast anywhere near its yield per unit of land. Of the total amount of land used to cultivate such oils, palm only accounts for 6.6% of said land, while delivering 38.7% of the total oil output. Trying to swap palm for another oil would only worsen deforestation. It’s simply too profitable to replace, in the eyes of manufacturers. 

As a result, palm oil has become ubiquitous, meaning it’s almost impossible to find products that don’t contain palm oil in some form. It’s thought that 50% of all products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil, and many are sneaky about it. Only about 10% of those products actually mention “palm oil” in the ingredients list. Most often it’s often disguised by other names, such as:

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

That’s a lot of overwhelming information for a consumer. How can you avoid an ingredient that’s so common without changing your entire lifestyle? Boycotts are not as helpful in this regard as they may seem. As previously mentioned, simply replacing palm oil with another oil would technically be more harmful in the long run because of the overwhelming efficiency and low cost of palm. Another factor to consider is the sheer number of people employed by the industry. Palm oil now accounts for 13.7% of Malaysia’s gross national income and is Indonesia’s top export, and government officials from the two countries have praised the industry for reducing poverty in the area. Millions of smallholder farmers depend on producing palm oil for their livelihoods.

Even “sustainably sourced” palm oil can be misleading. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed in a partnership between the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and major palm oil producers, claims that up to 19% of palm oil worldwide is harvested sustainably, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. You see, only 1% of the oil must be harvested sustainably in order to claim the RSPO label, while the other 99% might come from freshly deforested land. A single palm oil mill might have hundreds of suppliers of palm fruit, but perhaps only one or two of those might meet sustainability standards, which makes it difficult to ensure sustainability throughout the supply chain. Climate protection is not taken into consideration by the RSPO at all. The RSPO claims that having less strict certification criteria encourages participation, while Greenpeace International has denounced the label, calling it little more than “greenwashing”, as well as a ploy to gain back some credibility for an industry that has come under fire as the public has gained more awareness of deforestation and climate change. 

So what are the alternatives? It might seem obvious to say that we should swap out palm oil for a similar product. Some cosmetics companies have palm oil-free lines that use coconut oil or canola oil. Food scientists have begun conducting research into the use of more exotic answers to the palm oil problem in the form of shea oil and mango oil. Technology is being developed that transforms algae oil into biodiesel. At the end of the day though, it all comes back to cost. There’s simply no alternative that can be produced as cheaply as palm oil can be. As far as manufacturers are concerned, there’s no incentive for them to change the way they’ve always done things. It doesn’t seem that environmental destruction and climate change factor into the equation at all. And unless those alternatives are harvested in a sustainable way, it really wouldn’t do any less harm to the environment than the palm oil industry.

There’s no easy answer. As a consumer you can do your best to buy products free of palm oil, or products made with sustainably harvested palm oil, but those are admittedly few and far between. Don’t be afraid to ask your grocer or pharmacist about stocking palm-free products. Get in touch with your favorite cosmetics brands to ask about products made sustainably. Call on your local representatives to advocate for mandatory labeling of palm oil. Buy local, and be outspoken about it! It takes many voices for such concerns to be heard, so add yours to the chorus.

On a wider scale, it’s going to take a robust network of sustainably farmed oils, cultivated with moderation in mind. And moderation is not one of our species’ strengths. At some point, humanity is going to need to start prioritizing environmental concerns over profits. The best time for this was about a hundred years ago; the second best time is today.