Palm oil is extracted from the fruit pulp of oil palm trees and is so versatile that it is found in around half the items on supermarket shelves – from food to cosmetics – as well as being used for biofuel. Many debates have been had about whether or not palm oil is suitable for vegans. Technically, it is as it isn’t derived from animals. However, it doesn’t come without its ethical dilemmas. Here are 10 facts to consider before buying a product containing palm oil:
1. Palm oil is the world’s highest yielding and least expensive vegetable oil
Palm oil’s efficiency makes it a popular choice for millions of companies globally. Of the total world production, five per cent is used for biofuels, 24 per cent for cosmetics and 71 per cent by the food industry. It is the most widely consumed vegetable oil worldwide and half of all packaged products contain palm oil. From ice cream and instant noodles, to shampoo and lipstick, the demand for cheap palm oil is steadily rising.
2. Palm oil production is causing deforestation of tropical forests
The oil palm’s range is limited to the humid tropics, so expansion has come at the expense of species-rich and carbon-rich tropical forests. Because most oil palms are grown in areas that were once tropical forests, expansion now represents one of the most pervasive threats to biodiversity, driving the destruction of many tropical natural ecosystems.
3. Most oil palms grow in Malaysia and Indonesia
The vast majority, around 90 per cent, of the world’s oil palms are grown in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands containing some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth – where there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm plantations and deforestation. As the global demand for palm oil increases rapidly, global production increases rapidly in response.
The island of Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. It is politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north and Indonesia to the south. Plantation industries have been the principal driver of deforestation in Malaysian Borneo over the last four decades – their role in deforestation in Indonesian Borneo has been less marked. However, rapid conversion of forests in Indonesian Borneo to industrial plantations has increased steeply since 2005.
4. Palm oil plantations have destroyed important peat forests
On a global scale, palm oil makes a sizeable contribution to climate change from the draining and conversion of tropical peat forests. The destruction of tropical peat forests in Indonesia is particularly damaging because these forests store more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem in the world. Indonesia’s high deforestation rate has made it the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases.
5. Palm oil production causes widespread air pollution
Fires set in forests and on carbon-rich peatland to quickly clear the land for oil plam plantations can lead to significant air pollution which can be seen at a regional and even a global level. In Asia, fires from peatlands and deforestation are most common in Indonesia. The resulting smoke plumes can travel long distances causing air pollution across the region. The 2015 Southeast Asian haze was an air pollution crisis caused by fires that affected several countries including Brunei, Indonesia (especially Sumatra and Borneo), Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.
6. Palm oil decimates biodiversity
The negative impacts of oil palm development on biodiversity, and on orangutans in particular, have been well documented. Orangutans are great apes, currently only found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, they are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
They used to be considered as one species but in 1996 they were reclassified as two species: Bornean orangutans and Sumatran orangutans. In 2017, a newly described Tapanuli orangutan was discovered in the Batang Toru forests in Sumatra, with a severely fragmented population of less than 800 individuals. The expansion of plantations has caused substantial losses of their natural habitat and so all three species are currently listed as critically endangered. We should be able to brush our teeth or eat a snack without pushing orangutans into extinction.
7. ‘Sustainable’ palm oil is not sustainable enough
The main organisation responsible for the certification of sustainable palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It is composed of oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The RSPO has been criticised by a number of environmental groups; issues include the impact of palm oil plantations on biodiversity and orangutans, destruction of tropical forest and the burning and draining of large areas of peat swamp forests.
8. Africa could be the answer to more sustainable palm oil
Scientists say that there is an urgent need to develop guidelines for the expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimise the negative effects on apes and other wildlife in SE Asia, as well supporting land use decisions that can reconcile economic development, great ape conservation and avoid carbon emissions. The oil palm is actually native to Africa so the continent has the perfect climate for growing it – if it can avoid the mistakes of SE Asia.
9. Palm oil can be sustainable
Because it is cheap and takes up less land than other oils, palm oil does not necessarily need to be abandoned entirely – if it can be produced sustainably. Sustainable production of palm oil must include solid promises that any expansion growth does not come at the expense of existing forest habitats through direct or indirect deforestation. Government regulation and public pressure is required to ensure that the expansion of oil palm plantations occurs in ways that protect biodiversity-rich ecosystems and prevent further deforestation.
10. There are healthier oils
Although palm oil contains some vitamins and is not as unhealthy as trans fats and oils derived from animals as found in butter, it cannot be considered healthy. Like coconut oil, palm oil contains very high levels of saturated fat which has been clearly linked to heart disease. Healthier options include olive oil for dressing and rapeseed or sunflower oil for cooking. Most palm oil is found in ultra-processed foods, which are best avoided anyway.
Whether palm oil is considered vegan or not, one thing is certain: most of it is not produced sustainably and causes great environmental damage. Because palm oil production requires less land than other oils, it shouldn’t be entirely written off, but there’s a long way to go before it can be considered sustainable.