Palm Oil: A Miracle Crop With Disastrous Consequences

Palm oil is everywhere – in our food, cosmetics, stationary, pharmaceuticals and many more everyday products. We are buying and consuming it in massive amounts, most of the time without even knowing it. Yet the environmental destruction and human rights violations inflicted by plantations makes palm oil one of the most toxic industries on our planet. Can it ever be sustainable?


The controversy around palm oil has been highly publicised in recent years, drawing images in many people’s minds of deforestation, homeless orangutans and violent corruption. And yet it is still the most widely-used vegetable oil, found in snacks, detergents, cosmetics and biofuels. 50% of packaged goods in European supermarkets contain palm oil, with Indonesia and Malaysia cited as the biggest suppliers.


The Problem With Palm Oil


Palm oil is grown in monoculture and huge areas of rainforest are destroyed to make this possible. The use of fire and intensive cultivation methods lead to soil pollution, erosion and loss of fertility, making it nearly impossible for the rainforest to regenerate. On top of this, the conversion of forest to peatland releases large amounts of carbon, speeding up the process of climate change.


The most famous animal associated with palm oil is the orangutan, found in Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutans make their homes in the tall trees of the rainforest, and when these are cut down they have nowhere to go. Orangutan babies are dependent on their mothers for up to eight years – if the baby is orphaned they are incapable of surviving in the wild alone, as well as being vulnerable to the pet trade. There are also cases of lost orangutans being murdered violently by plantation workers, who sometimes see them as pests. The Centre for Orangutan Protection estimates that at least 1500 orangutans were clubbed to death by plantation workers in 2006 and predicts they could be eradicated completely by 2020. Other animals are also critically endangered due to deforestation – the Sumatran Elephant, Tiger and Rhino also face extinction, the latter of which has a population of less than 100 left in the wild.


Instead of seeking partnership with local farmers and offering employment, large oil companies bring their own migrant workers and create a conflict over resources. Areas become overpopulated and local farmers are forced off their land and lose their livelihood. The workers and their families often have no contact with the outside world and their children have little or no access to education. In fact, it is estimated that 30% of the violations of human rights reported in Indonesia in 2010 were connected with the cultivation of palm oil.


The areas of forest cut down for plantations are burnt as a quick and easy way to make space. This leads to the release of greenhouse gases and pollutes the atmosphere with smoke and carbon dioxide. The degradation of the soil also creates the environmental conditions for natural forest fires to occur, which can destroy remaining wildlife and local communities.


Palm oil mills generate 2.5 tonnes of effluent per tonne of oil, and unless this is disposed of carefully it leads to fresh water and groundwater pollution. The chemicals kill fish in the rivers and can harm locals who use it as a water source.


In 2017, the large Guatemalan firm RESPA who supplies Nestle and Pepsico were connected to the murder of indigenous community leader Rigoberto Lima Choc who spoke out about the effluent spill and pollution of the Pasion River. He was fatally shot in broad daylight just days after he was elected to form part of the local government.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RPSO)


RSPO-palm oil-orangutan


The RSPO was set up in 2004 – a consortium of NGOs, producers and voluntary organisations encouraging businesses to adopt environmentally and socially beneficial practices. They award certification to plantations that are shown to do this, and this label can be placed on products to give consumers peace of mind. However, there is evidence that the

In order to obtain the GreenPalm certification, a company has to prove that one of their plantations is producing palm oil sustainably. That company could have one sustainable plantation and ten non-sustainable, but still use the certification on their products regardless of which plantation the palm oil comes from. As consumers, we cannot know if we are supporting an ecological or an exploitative plantation. There is also evidence of greenwashing by auditors for their own financial gain and other corruption at play.

The RSPO has made steps in recent years to become more ethical and viable, which is complex as it is a voluntary organisation and cannot choose its members. They now only certify 20% of the market and have made the acceptance process more thorough. Columbian agri-business DAABON has held the highest level of certification since 2010 and had to complete a six-day audit and verification of 122 smallholder farms who supply their mill. The CEO said the work involved was demanding, time-consuming but worth it to truthfully inform users that their product is sustainable. It is a step in the right direction, but trusting an RSPO certification requires thorough research.

Why don’t we just boycott palm oil?

The most obvious solution, and one touted by many protesters of palm oil, is to boycott the substance completely. Yet – as well as being nearly impossible due its prevalence in almost every food product – this is slightly missing the point. From an environmental point of view, the palm oil crop itself is not the problem. It is the method of cultivation which is to blame. In fact, palm trees use ten times less land than other vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, and produce more crops per hectare without requiring as many fertilisers or pesticides. If we all avoided palm oil in favour of another type, more deforestation would occur to make room for these new plantations and a wider area of land would be needed to meet the high demand that palm oil is currently supplying.

The real solutions

A proactive step for us as individuals is to minimise the amount of palm oil in our diets. This is for both environmental and health benefits, as foods associated with oil tend to be high in saturated fats linked to obesity and heart disease.  If our demand for palm oil is weaker, then fewer new plantations will be grown and deforestation will decrease.

In 2015 an EU directive was introduced requiring food packaging to state the use of palm oil. However, businesses seeking to evade the association with palm oil use derivative names such as palmitic acid or octyl palmitate making the less-diligent consumer unaware. There are ways around this confusion, including apps such as Buycott, which lets you scan products bar codes and see their ecological footprint.

The real focus needs to be on only using palm oil from sustainable sources and avoiding companies such as Nestle and Kellogg’s linked to corrupt plantations. By doing this, we give these businesses financial incentive to review their methods and stop a loss in profit as consumers switch to sustainable brands. The RSPO system at present isn’t perfect and needs to be held accountable for unethical actions – change needs to be seen so everyone can be sure it is a trusted and environmentally mindful method. If this can occur then sustainable palm oil production might just be possible.

Check out our Green-Books documentary for kids on the environmental impact of palm oil here.

Knowledge and understanding is at the heart of saving our natural world. Together we can achieve universal environmental education in Indonesia. It can be as simple as purchasing a book ,sponsoring an Eco-Education Centre or making a donation.  To learn more about how you can help us achieve our goals and protect the environment, click here.

Co-written and edited by Rachael Gough