By Jade Ellis


What is Palm oil?

Palm oil is one of the world’s most popular edible vegetable oils, due to its low cost, lack of trans fats, long shelf life and wide availability. It is grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms can grow wherever there are copious amounts of rainfall and heat. Today palm oil is globally produced and grown throughout Africa, Asia, North and South America.


Palm oil appears in a massive amount of food and cosmetic products, as well as having high demands for its use in biofuels like biodiesel, which are set to grown in the nearby future. This poses a massive array of environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation and endangering species native to lands where oil palms are grown and harvested. The deforestation of Indonesia is contributing to destroying the habitat and climate change.


Environmental Impacts of Palm oil

The Palm oil industry is heavily contributing to deforestation, also playing a large role in climate change. Climate change is becoming a significant problem due to deforestation for palm oil. Indonesia is the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.


When forests are cleared to make room for oil palm plantations, the area is burned down. The burning down of these forests often involves burning the invaluable timber and remaining forest undergrowth, which emits large amounts of smoke into the atmosphere. Palm oil plantations have cleared some of the world’s most prized, carbon capturing forests.


Impact of palm oil on people

The palm oil industry has been connected to major human rights violations, including child labour in remote areas of Malaysia and Indonesia. This consists of children having to carry large loads of heavy fruit and weed fields, spending hours being bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Cuts, bruises and heat exhaustion from climbing thorny oil palms are normal in these cases, and these children rarely receive pay for their efforts.


Palm Plantations are often promoted as a way of bringing growth and expansion to rural and poor regions of Borneo and Sumatra. These plantations do provide employment to many people in South East Asia. Although these plantations and the interest from the government in their economy, has lead indigenous land to be taken by corporations for their own financial benefit.


Plantations are destroying the land that local people depend on and communities are finding themselves having to become planation workers. Some barely have enough to survive being faced with poor working conditions. Indigenous communities become reliant on the palm oil industry for their survival.


Driving Animals to Extinction

Throughout the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, many animals are injured, killed and displaced during deforestation. The palm oil development increases the availability of animals to wildlife smugglers and poachers who capture and sell animals as pets, sell them for medicinal purposes or kill them for their body parts.


Endangered species such as the Orang-utan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Orang-utans have been found buried alive, killed from machete attacks, guns and other weaponry. The deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades has killed over 50,000 orang-utans. This can happen after the animal enters a village or palm oil plantation in search of food, or during the deforestation process. If captured by poachers, they can be used for entertainment in wildlife tourism parks in Thailand and Bali. Mother Organ-utans are often killed and have their babies to be kept as pets or sold. The destruction of rainforests is also a major animal welfare crisis.


What products contains palm oil?

Palm oil is present in at least half of the items sold in most supermarkets – shampoo, margarine, ice cream, baked goods, cleaning products, and cosmetics just to name a few. Palm oil is often hidden on ingredient lists behind others, and sometimes simply listed as a ‘vegetable oil.’ It is important to know what names to look for on an ingredient list when avoiding palm oil.


Health Implications

Palm oil may be widely used, and low in trans-fat but that does not mean it is healthy. Palm oil is extremely high in saturated fat, which are fine consumed in moderation but if you consume a high amount, your LDL cholesterol levels will raise significantly. Palm oil is also heavily refined which gets rid of any good nutrients and minerals and makes it harder for our bodies to digest.


Palm oil from ‘sustainable sources’

Palm oil that comes from plantations transformed from forest and peatland areas are what we should be against. At the moment it is impossible to determine where palm oil comes from. It would be ideal for companies to stop trading from suppliers known to be involved in forest conversion.


Roundtable for sustainable palm oil (RSPO) was set up in 2001, in the hopes to establish clear, ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil. A large amount of big growers signed up to the RSPO logo, but Greenpeace state that this standard is ‘not strong enough to prevent deforestation.’ RSPO’s standards do not ban deforestation or destruction of peatlands for the development of oil palm plantations.


This may actually create the illusion of sustainable palm oil, and justify the expansion of the palm oil industry. Sustainable palm oil has been put down for years from organisations who feel it is not solving any problems.