Despite the health risks, the greatest controversy
over palm oil surrounds the industry’s impact on the environment.
Oil palms are tropical plants that thrive in the wet, warm
climate of tropical rainforests. Sadly, these rich, biodiverse
ecosystems are being destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations — at alarming
According to the nonprofit organization, Rainforest
Rescue, oil palm plantations are the leadingcause of rainforest destruction in
Malaysia and Indonesia. They produce 90% of the world’s palm oil.
Every hour, an estimated rainforest acreage equivalent to
300 soccer fields are cleared. And if deforestation continues at
current rates, 98% of rainforest in Indonesia may be destroyed by
What’s more, nearly half of the oil palm plantations in
Southeast Asia exist on areas that were forests only decades ago.
The loss of rainforests threatens the environment of the
entire planet. And this gives rise to a chain of devastating consequences.
3 Ways Rainforest Deforestation Harms the World
It contributes to global warming emissions. Most
Indonesian rainforest grows on tropical peatland — a major sink for
carbon. Native trees are cleared to make way for palm plantations, the
remaining vegetation is burned, and the land is drained. This process
releases tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment. Clearing
rainforests account for about 10% of total global
It harms animals and their habitats. The
rainforests are also home to unique species of animals and plants, some
found nowhere else in the world. Deforestation is destroying crucial
habitat for endangered species including the orangutan, elephant, and
It pollutes the air. The burning of
rainforest lands to make way for oil palms create significant air
pollution. Exposure to the smoke from such fires is estimated
to contribute to 339,000 deaths every year in Africa
and Southeast Asia. Oil palm plantations also use copious amounts of
chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In fact, fertilizer use in
Asia increased by
1,900% in the last 40 years, primarily due to the growth of the palm oil
How the Palm Oil Industry Violates Human Rights
Another dark side to the palm oil industry is that
it’s ruining the lives of people who depend on rainforests for their
The industry refutes this by stating that they provide work
for local people, which is true. Up to two million Indonesians work in the palm
oil industry. However, the laborers are subject to low wages for long hours of
grueling work. And reports of forced labor and slavery are persistent and more than disturbing.
Child labor is another serious problem.
The industry often compels children of palm workers to work, treat them poorly,
and pay them dreadfully low wages (if they pay them at all).
The industry also violates the rights of indigenous
peoples by seizing extensive
tracts of their land.
Does ‘Sustainable’ Palm Oil Exist?
If you like the idea of adding palm oil to your diet or
personal care products but don’t want to contribute to environmental
destruction and violation of human rights, you may think a sustainable variety
is the answer.
But unfortunately, “sustainable palm oil” is just as
controversial as the industry as a whole.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formed in 2004
as a way to support the growth of sustainable oil palms and for consumers to
identify sustainable products.
Unfortunately, the founders were industry leaders. Today,
palm oil from many of the RSPO-certified companies is still causing the same
problems as non-certified oils.
A study published in Environmental Research Letters actually
found “no significant difference” between certified and non-certified
plantations for any of the sustainability outcomes they measured. For instance,
orangutan populations declined at similar rates whether they lived near
RSPO-certified or non-certified oil palm plantations.
Similar concerns have risen about the comparable Palm Oil
Innovation Group (POIG) certification and “Green Palm” labels.
Researchers have found that so-called
“sustainable” palm oil is often still associated with the recent loss of
rainforests and habitat degradation. In fact, both RSPO and POIG allow the
clearing of forests as long as they’re not identified as areas with high
conservation value or high carbon stock.
Sadly, the term “sustainable palm oil” is often
misleading and even a form of “greenwashing.”
It leads consumers to think their oil is safe for the
environment. But the reality is, it’s still contributing to the
destruction of rainforests and the exploitation of workers.
Does Truly Sustainable Palm Oil Exist?
Some companies do produce palm oil without deforestation or
draining of peatlands.
UCS developed a scorecard that ranks companies according to their
commitment to using palm oil that is free from deforestation, peatland destruction,
and other measures such as traceability and transparency.
Theoretically, it’s possible to produce this oil without
deforestation. But due to complex supply chains, it’s difficult to guarantee
that products claiming to be deforestation-free were
actually produced that way.
A better option is to support companies not using it in
the first place.
For example, U.K. frozen food chain Iceland became
among the first to stop using palm oil in their products. The move took effect
at the end of 2018.
Are There Any Bright Spots in the Palm Oil Industry?
Yes, a couple of bright spots do exist in the industry.
Notably, there is Palm Done Right. The
organization has developed a set of standards to produce palm oil organically,
using the principles of regenerative agriculture.
Most oil produced via the Palm Done Right principles
comes from small family farms in Ecuador. They regenerate land that is
already degraded or convert existing palm farms to organic. And to
reduce the risk of toxic contaminant formation, they also refine the oil at
Fair for Life is another standard to look for.
They ensure the protection of human rights and respect for local ecosystems,
biodiversity, and sustainable agriculture practices.
In short, if you choose to use palm oil, look for
unrefined red palm oil. (It is far less highly processed and has more valuable
nutrients left in it.) And look for oil produced according to the following
- Palm Done Right
- Fair for Life
As for what to avoid, you might want to steer clear
of the heavily refined palm oil found in most processed foods. This goes
for personal care products and cosmetics as well. You can find it on
ingredient labels under the following names:
- Vegetable oil
- Vegetable fat
- Palm kernel
- Palm kernel oil
- Stearic acid
- Palmitic acid
- Elaeis Guineensis
- Palm stearine
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
- Sodium lauryl lactylate
- Palmitoyl oxostearamide
- Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- Sodium kernelate
- Etyl palmitate
- Sodium palm kernelate
- Palm glycerides
- Octyl palmitate
- Palmityl alcohol
Many environmentally friendly alternatives exist.
Focus on fresh, locally grown foods first and foremost. And
if you’re going to eat processed foods, look for those made without this
Or if you’re concerned about human rights, tropical
rainforests, orangutans, or the future of our climate, you now have a few more
good reasons to ditch processed foods altogether.