The most popular vegetable oil
Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil. In conservationist and sustainability circles, however, the palm oil industry is infamous for its effects on deforestation, biodiversity, and the rights of local communities.
Palm oil is created from the fruits of a tree called the African oil palm. These trees are native to West and South-west Africa, but they were introduced to Southeast Asia – particularly Indonesia and Malaysia – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
They grow well in tropical rainforest areas, and they are cultivated both on small family farms and large plantations.
As Dr. Emma Keller of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) explained, palm oil is everywhere, “in close to half of the products we buy in the supermarkets – in everything from shampoos and soaps, to pizzas and biscuits.”
The High Environmental Cost of Palm Oil
Conventionally grown palm oil has been terrible for the world’s tropical rainforests. Palm oil producers have accounted for about 8% of the world’s deforestation | Learn more on Commonshare | between 1990 and 2008.
The reason for this is that the process of cultivating palm oil starts with burning tracts of forest to clear areas in which palm trees can be cultivated. Much of this is illegal, but it occurs anyway in countries where oversight is lax.
The rainforests of Southeast Asia are some of the most biodiverse in the world. They are home to such high-profile and irreplaceable species as tigers, orangutans, Asian elephants, and rhinos – both Sumatran and Javan rhinos.
In addition to the loss to biodiversity, burning rainforest for palm oil plantations releases carbon dioxide and soot into the air, contributing to climate change.
There are also human rights issues associated with the cultivation of palm oil. At the end of 2016, Amnesty International alleged that young children were being used as labor on palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
The Arguable Upsides to Palm Oil
Palm oil is not without its defenders. Some have pointed out that palm oil is a super-efficient crop, meaning it is possible to produce a lot of it per cultivated area of land – square acre, say – compared with soybean oil or coconut oil, two other crops that also contribute to deforestation in tropical rainforests.
Defenders also argue that the oil palm trees do not require as much in the way of pesticides or fertilizers.
And defenders even argue that the palm oil industry provides jobs and opportunity to desperately poor people with few options.
Dr. Emma Keller argues that palm oil | Learn more on Commonshare | "has provided jobs for millions of small farmers, helping them to get out of poverty, earn more money and have a better life for them and their families.”
Solutions for Sustainability
In recent years, consumer pressure and environmental lobbying have driven the palm oil industry toward sustainability | Learn more on Commonshare |, at least to a degree.
A group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), formed in 2003, was created to help the palm oil industry clean up its act. Founded by the WWF, the group asks the palm oil cultivators who join it to follow strict guidelines for producing palm oil.
Labeling is another area that has seen progress for sustainability. Previously, food manufacturers were not required to state that their products contained palm oil: they only needed to specify vegetable oil. Now, thanks to a new EU labelling law, manufacturers who use palm oil must specify that they have done so.
Dr. Emma Alexander argues that palm oil | Learn more on Commonshare | has an important place to play in the global economy. It should still be produced – particularly because it is so efficient – but growers, advocacy organizations, consumers, and governments need to keep working to make sure that palm oil is grown sustainably and certified.