The Environmental Impact of Palm Oil

Derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods, ranging from lipstick to packaged food to body lotion. It is also used in around half of the products on grocery store shelves. U.S. palm oil imports increased by 485 percent in the last decade.

Around million metric tons of palm oil are produced every year, making palm oil the top edible palm oil by volume, and the cheapest vegetable oil to produce, according to a Friends of the Earth (FOE) brief. About 85 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea on industrial plantations. Indonesia is the biggest producer of palm oil in the world. 

Is palm oil destroying Indonesia’s environment?

Palm oil cultivation has big environmental impacts, which include deforestation, destruction of peatlands, and greenhouse gas emissions. Rainforests are the world’s largest carbon sinks, and in Indonesia, rainforests are destroyed to allow palm oil cultivation. Deforestation causes 80 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions, contributing to the country’s status as the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Rainforests in Indonesia are some of the world’s most diverse, providing habitat to species that include Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and orangutans. Oil palm plantations cover over 27 million hectares of the world’s surface.

Peatlands in Indonesia store about 80 billion tons of carbon, which equals approximately five percent of all carbon stored in soil around the world. Indonesia had 50 percent of the world’s peatlands, but palm oil cultivation decreases the country’s peatlands.

Can we trust RSPO certification?

The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies palm oil as sustainable. However, the certification scheme faces significant criticism. Here is a list of some of the biggest criticisms the scheme faces:

  • RSPO members violated the organization’s standards according to a 2018 report by Greenpeace.
  • In 2018, more than 100 global organizations signed an open statement criticizing RSPO, claiming that the organization “failed to live up to its claim of transforming the industrial palm oil production sector into a so-called sustainable one.”
  • The Assurance Task Force set up by the RSPO, did not deliver and complete its objectives, and is “one of the worst-run working groups” of the organization, according to a 2019 report
  • The Transnational Institute pointed out that the public perception by the RSPO Palm Trace label is viewed as being more effective than it is in reality. “If a product is labeled with RSPO’s Palm Trace label, the public perception is that this means it is ‘good palm oil’ (with implications that no deforestation happened, that it is produced organically, with good labor conditions and fair prices, etc) whereas in reality, it is merely evidence of refiners, manufacturers, and retailers signing up to a much more limited set of criteria, only some of which is properly audited and evaluated,” the report stated. 
  • A study published in 2020 found that certified oil palm plantations are located in the 1990s large mammals’ habitat. 
  • A study published in 2018 found “no significant difference” between certified and non-certified oil palm plantations. Researchers did find “positive economic trends including greater fresh fruit bunch yields.”

How consumers can avoid palm oil

North American food and agribusiness companies buy from, operate, and own many oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, according to the Rainforest Action Network. Consumers concerned about the environmental destruction linked to palm oil cultivation can take steps to avoid consumption of palm oil:

  1. One of the first steps to take is to read labels. Palm oil is often labeled as vegetable oil. 
  2. Reduce consumption of prepackaged foods because most prepackaged foods by corporate giants, including Nestle and Unilever, contain palm oil. 
  3. Look at a product’s saturated food and if it is more than 40 percent of total fat content, it most likely contains palm oil. 
  4. Pick products with sustainable oils such as sunflower, coconut oil, or olive oil.

Consumers can send a signal to industry that they need to take seriously the environmental impacts of palm oil.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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