Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, and worldwide demand for it is expected to double by 2050 to 240 million tonnes.
Palm oil can be found in many of the products we buy. It’s solid at room temperature, so it’s a good ingredient for lipstick, and it makes foods like ice-cream and chocolate more creamy. In fact, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil estimates that half of all packaged products contain palm oil, including Nutella and loaves of bread.
But have you ever wondered where it comes from?
It turns out that palm oil, unlike olive oil or rapeseed oil, is taken from tropical rain forests mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. These areas are a critical habitat for many endangered animal and plant species, including orangutans.
Here’s how palm oil is produced, and why it can be such a problem for the planet.
Marufish / Flickr
A palm oil plant in Kuala Lumpur.
Oil palms produce fruit which gets turned into palm oil
Oil palms produce fruit 4 to 6 years after planting. These fruits grow in bundles which lie tightly between branches. When ripe, they turn a bright orange-red colour. They’re usually harvested using extension poles, and workers have to chop off the branches with the bundles wedged in between, which is laborious.
The trees tend to live to 28 or 30 years old on average, by which point they reach about 12 metres tall and the fruit becomes too high to harvest. When this happens, the palms are injected with pesticide, killing the tree, which is then bulldozed to make room for new plants.
Trucks of palm fruit are delivered to the processing plant. According to a blog post on Treehugger.com, one plant in Hondupalma, Honduras operates 24 hours a day, only shutting down twice a year for maintenance. All this takes a lot of energy — about 2000kW. In a year the plant produces 60,000 tons of crude oil, so it’s a dirty process.
Next, the fruits need to be softened. They’re cooked for an hour with high pressure steam at a temperature of 140 degrees Celsius to break open the capsules and make the fruit bendy and oily. The kernal inside also separates. That’s used to make kernal oil, which can be found in ice-cream, chocolate, soap, and cosmetics.
Sustainability — what does it mean?
Palm oil itself is an efficient product and requires less land than any other oil. But creating sustainable palm oil plants isn’t simple.
Some farms where the fruit comes from are sustainable, but some of them aren’t. Treehugger maintains that at Hondupalma, 40% of the farms are not sustainable, meaning that rainforests are being destroyed for the palm oil production faster than the trees are growing back. As a result, wildlife is losing its critical habitat.
Plantations are a leading cause of deforestation in Southeast Asia. Some claim to be sustainable because they have been around for over 30 years and aren’t destroying any more rainforest than they’re using. Some also claim not to be operating in areas where orangutans are known to live.
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has a sustainability certification program which gives a badge to products whose palm oil can be traced back to a sustainable source.
But this has had mixed reactions from environmental groups. While some groups, like Friends of the Earth, say instead that instead of certification, which they say won’t help, the focus should be on reducing demand for palm oil in the first place. Others, such as Greenpeace, say certification, while not a panacea, is still a step in the right direction.
What’s the damage?
The WWF says large areas of tropical forests have been cleared to make room for oil palm plantations, which has destroyed critical habitat for many endangered species, including rhinos, elephants, tigers and orangutans.
Other impacts to the environment include soil erosion, air pollution, and soil and water pollution. There’s also the long-term impact on climate change since the destruction of trees releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Aside from their environmental damage, palm oil plantations are generally not a positive working environment for laborers, and indigenous peoples who live in areas where palm oil plantations are built are often evicted from the land.
An investigation by the International Labour Rights Forum, for example, found serious exploitation in palm oil supply chains. The RSPO’s certification has proven to be no guarantee against this abuse, the report found. At several plantations in Indonesia, the Forum found evidence of labour trafficking, child labour, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and abuse of temporary contracts.
Unfortunately, many companies don’t know where their palm oil comes from. Part of the problem is the vague and patchwork network of ingredient labelling.
For one thing, palm oil can go by many different names on ingredient labels. It can be called sodium lauryl sulphate in soap, glycerine in make-up, and even straight-up vegetable oil can sometimes really be palm oil.
Some companies are explicit about using palm oil, but most aren’t. And several companies, including P&G, Nestle, and Unilever, have promised to obtain more palm oil from sustainable plants.
So what’s the takeaway? If you’re concerned about palm oil, your best bet is probably to avoid it altogether where you can. There are also some helpful apps which can tell you whether a specific product is an orangutan-friendly choice, such as Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping.