You may not realize it, but palm oil is everywhere: in many of the foods you eat; in cosmetics and personal care items such as toothpaste, lipstick and soaps; and possibly also in the biodiesel you pump into the engine of your flex fuel ride. Like so many of the ingredients in the products we use, palm oil has advantages and disadvantages. But for the sake of our planet, we can no longer turn a blind eye to its disadvantages — even if its advantages are compelling.
So, let’s take a deep dive (figurative, not literal) into palm oil to understand how it’s used and the impact our use has on the environment.
Multiple Benefits, Many Uses: Why Manufacturers Rely on Palm Oil
The oil palm tree is a workhorse, producing nearly 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of oil per year and remaining productive for about 25 years. Compared to other oil sources, such as grape seed, sunflower, coconut and soybean, the oil palm provides a much higher yield per hectare (or acre). Production costs are also relatively low, making it one of the cheapest oils on the market today.
Palm oil has a relatively long shelf life and is stable at high cooking temperatures – properties that are hard to find in other vegetable oils. It has a neutral taste and smell. At room temperature, it’s solid or semi-solid, with a smooth and creamy texture. This makes it a perfect ingredient for the spreads we slather on bread (and eat while standing, so the calories don’t count).
Considering that palm oil is also widely used in cosmetics, household products and biodiesel, it figures prominently in our consumption habits. Worldwide, 26 kilograms (57 pounds) of vegetable oil are consumed per person annually, and palm oil makes up 36% of that consumption. The latest figure for the total global consumption of palm oil is 73.87 million metric tons. (81.43 million U.S. tons).
From Bread to Biodiesel
Manufacturers favor palm oil; it’s good for their bottom line. But it’s bad for our health. Half of the fatty acids found in palm oil are saturated fatty acids, and they turn up in food products as common as supermarket bread. If heart health (or your weight) is a concern for you, steer clear of palm oil. Did you know that even lard is a safer option? Fortunately, food producers and manufacturers noticed. Between 2008 and 2018, use of palm oil in food products decreased slightly.
However, its use in biodiesel increased significantly. Currently, 20%-25% of Europe’s biodiesel supply is based on palm oil, up from 8% in 2006. And as with the use of palm oil in food products, its use in biodiesel has also been reconsidered, at least in Europe. Palm oil and soybean oil have been categorized as presenting an increased risk of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to fossil fuels, under the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive II (RED II). The European Union agreed to ban palm oil from biodiesel by the year 2030 and in the meantime, the European Union has capped the amount of palm-oil-based biodiesel allowed in its overall supply.
Rainforests and Peatlands and Palm Oil – Oh No!
If you know little about the environmental impact of our palm oil dependency, Europe’s move to limit the amount of this commodity in its biodiesel supply should provide some clues.
A native species of Africa, the elaeis guineensis – more commonly known as the oil palm – eventually found its way to other warm-weather environments. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia supply roughly 85% of the palm oil we use, and it’s typically harvested from land that was once rainforest.
Between 1990 and 2020, the acreage designated across Indonesia and Malaysia for oil palms increased from 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) to 20 million hectares (49 million acres), with 14.6 million hectares (36 million acres) used in Indonesia and 5.87 million hectares (14.5 million acres) used in Malaysia. Consequently, the deforestation caused by the expansion in palm oil farming has been highest in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Deforestation is typically the precursor to land use change – from a primary forest to a monoculture plantation, in the case of the oil palm – and the land is then used for activities that increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But the deforestation process also has grave consequences for the environment.
Palm oil farming is also tied to peatland conversion. Peatlands are valuable ecosystems with high water content in and above the soil. To be converted for palm oil farming, they must be drained and any leftover vegetation must be burnt. The drainage triggers processes in the soil that lead to a high emission of CO2 and methane; the burning that follows contributes further to increased CO2 emissions.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua Guinea are home to some of the most extensive tropical peatlands in the world, totaling roughly 27 million hectares (67 million acres). By 2015, nearly 27% of the peatlands in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra were converted to industrial plantations, most of them palm oil plantations.
The impact of our demand for palm oil-based products also extends to water bodies. When waste products from palm oil production are not properly treated in oil mills, they often end up in ponds. Anaerobic processes and microbial interactions with organic material subsequently cause CO2 and methane emissions.
Animal Extinction: a Price Too High to Pay
We are eliminating rainforest species through deforestation and land use conversion. For example, roughly 150,000 Bornean orangutans were killed due to deforestation and hunting between 1999 and 2015, cutting their population in half. It is expected that another ￼40,000 orangutans will be lost in the next 35 years if deforestation continues at its current pace. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 54% of threatened mammals and 64% of threatened birds could be affected by the continued global expansion of oil palm farming. Yes, rainforest species still inhabit palm oil plantations, but their numbers are greatly reduced: These plantations can accommodate only 30% of primary rainforest species.
Here’s the key take-away: Manufacturers have long benefited from the productive oil palm, while the ecosystems that offer fertile ground for their growth have suffered. The activities associated with palm oil farming have increased greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the industry only uses “sustainable” palm oil, e.g., certified to the RSPO standard, that probably won’t be enough. Companies should look into their own supply chain to ensure that the palm oil they use is not sourced from a deforested region.