• OIympie M

Growing Green: Palm Oil

This article will unravel the far-reaching effects that we, as consumers of palm oil, have on environments and societies. It will also break down the impacts of palm oil into the stages of the linear economy, as well as possible solutions regarding palm oil as a product.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of oil palms. Originally from Africa, the Elaeis guineensis (Palm oil) was brought to South-East Asia over 100 years ago. Today, 85 to 90 percent of global supply is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia; in 2019, Indonesia produced nearly 50 million metric tonnes of palm oil. In total, 400 other countries also produce palm oil. It is everywhere and in almost everything; from shampoo, chocolate, beauty products and our favorite ice-cream brands. Approximately 50 percent of supermarket products contain palm oil.

Image: ILO in Asia and the Pacific, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Scale of Impact

Our Craving For Palm Oil

A whopping 3 billion people from 150 countries consume products containing palm oil. In a year, roughly 8kg of palm oil is consumed per person. It has been unavoidable for the past century.

Why palm oil?

Growing other oils requires 10 times more land than it does for palm oil. Palm trees have the ability to grow in nearly all types of soils and are perennial, meaning they can produce oil all year long. This efficiency is what makes the production cost so low. On top of that, palm oil requires fewer pesticides and fertilizers, which keeps manufacturing costs low as well.

Not only is palm oil very profitable but is also recognized as being a very stable oil with hardly any trans fatty acids, so healthier. When compared to animal products and fatty hydrogenated vegetable oil, palm oil is the obvious choice. Because of this, ever since the late 70s, companies like Nestle and L’Oreal have become hooked on palm oil, with many having adapted their products to contain palm oil.

Extraction: The Damage

The Forest's Cry For Help

Right now, palm oil plantations cover more than 27 million hectares of Earth's surface. Indonesia and Malaysia are some of the most deforested areas on Earth. 47 % of the deforestation in Borneo is caused by palm oil plantations and, every year, nearly 900, 000 acres are lost because of them.

The forest's biodiversity and ecosystem are thus slowly crumbling down, with many species having reached stages of near extinction. In the last 30 years, the number of orangutans in the wild has decreased by around 230,000, causing them to be classified as a critically endangered species. Sumatran tigers, as well as many species of birds, are facing the same problem too. After being chased out of their habitats with little to rely on, most species have little chance of long-term survival. Deforestation has also proven to have increased the number of poachers, because areas that were once inaccessible are no longer protected by the forest.

But the loss of habitats is not the only issue. Deforestation releases significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which speeds up global warming. To top it off, tree roots which should anchor the soil are removed, allowing the rain to wash away soils rich in nutrients. Crops decline and farmers have no other choice but to use more expensive fertilisers.

All this is because of palm oil.


The People: The Orang Rimba People.

In Indonesia, more than 50 million people depend on the forest to sustain themselves. Their key source of income is farming, as well as fishing and hunting.

Members of the Orang Rimba, a tribe in the Jambi province, have all been chased out of their homes. Now, they have no other option but to live in plastic tents, beg along highways, and even commit crimes to try and support themselves.

Restricted in their access to markets for their produce, as well as their access to basic services such as healthcare and education, the Orang Rimba and other displaced communities like them are struggling to survive.

Production: The Hardships

The 'workers'.

Not having access to clean water and lighting is very common for workers at palm oil plantations, who work in unsafe conditions and get paid far below the minimum wage. Some are immigrants who lack social support and who are isolated because of language and cultural barriers.

Trafficking cases in Malaysian and Indonesian plantations are not uncommon either. Workers are forced to sign contracts that they do not agree with and often have their passports taken away. If they do not abide by the rules, they can be threatened with deportation or confiscation of wages.

Child labor is also a serious problem, especially in Indonesia. Children are forced to work long hours and are often exposed to toxic chemicals which put their health at great risk. Little to no regard is given to education in rural areas, leading to child labor becoming the norm. Even in neighboring Malaysia, between 72,000 and 200,000 stateless children work on palm oil plantations.

ADEK BERRY / AFP / Getty Images

Distribution: The Impact

The journey.

Palm oil is distributed in over 150 countries around the world. The product is transported from the distributors to wholesalers, retailers, and finally the consumers. This distribution process can have very harmful impacts on the environment and our health.

Carbon emissions from transportation account for approximately 25% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions and are predicted to increase rapidly if we do not intervene before the year 2050.

Large cargo ships, a common approach to palm oil distribution, discharge ballast water, bilge water, gray water, and black water, which can all decrease water quality significantly. This increases the risk to public health and poses a major threat to aquatic ecosystems.

Motor vehicles, in general, emit a large number of pollutants and are significant contributors to air pollution as well. Besides air pollution, transport also gives rise to other environmental problems such as water pollution, uptake and fragmentation of land, noise pollution, generation of waste, and risk of accidents.

Marine life has become more vulnerable to injuries from vessel traffic. Species like whales, dolphins, and porpoises spend a lot more time near the ocean surface and thus, are put at greater risks.

Mammal communications, breeding, and behavior are also severely disturbed. Researchers believe that an increase in shipping traffic will increase noise pollution which could affect the health and wellbeing of the species.

Consumption: The Hazards

A risk to take.

Even if it is considered healthier than other possible alternatives, there are risks that follow the consumption of palm oil. A study was conducted in 23 different countries, which verified that people who consume the most palm oil have a higher chance of developing ischaemic heart disease. Another experiment found that palm oil consumption increases blood levels of atherogenic low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) linked saturated fat consumption with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Disposal: The Damage

What is POME?

POME (palm oil mill effluent) is wastewater generated by palm oil processing mills. POME contains very highly polluting properties and therefore, must be thoroughly treated before being discharged.

What is the problem?

POME contains high biochemical and chemical oxygen demands which reduce biodiversity and suffocate the aquatic ecosystem. Compared to municipal sewage, POME is a hundred times more polluted and contains different supplemental substances such as organic nitrogen and phosphorus, which pose a great threat to the environment. It is Malaysia's main source of water pollution and once discharged, the damages are irreversible - the amount of POME that is generated is far too large to manage.

POME can be treated through a process called ‘phytoremediation’; however, it can still have adverse effects on the environment. Even after the treatment, the significant amount of organic matter does not decrease.

Image: Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

What are the Solutions?

Despite all the difficulties that encompass the palm oil industry, growing the crop does not necessarily have to be completely bad, and it should not simply be banned. Instead, we should work towards finding more sustainable options to cultivate it.

The first step to improve palm oil production is to ensure that conversion of the land used for plantations does not have adverse impacts on the environment. To do that, we must follow the "environmental sustainability" pillar of good agricultural practices (GAP).

Another challenge which we must face is the significant release of carbon emissions. Cultivating the palm oil on fallow (plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility) and agriculturally usable land. However, that is up to the government of the producer countries to decide.

Consumers must also play their part. By purchasing sustainable palm oil and raising awareness on its importance, other consumers will be encouraged to do the same. Once the purchase of sustainable palm oil is normalised, the producers will have no other choice but to reform their plantations to become more sustainable. Obviously, this is a very slow and challenging process but it can be achieved if it is a shared social aim.

For some countries, the palm oil industry is economically substantial, and foreign currency through international trade is very valuable to them.

Not only that, but palm oil plantations provide employment opportunities for a large number of people. Most, coming from very underprivileged backgrounds, have no other work options. However, it is crucial that all workers be paid the minimum wage (or above) and, most importantly, that child labor is prohibited so that the families can exit the poverty cycle.

In recent years, various certification schemes have been set up. These include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Rainforest Alliance, International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). The aforementioned organizations impose rules and regulations that producers must abide to when growing their props such as reducing rainforest clearance, slash-and-burn, and human rights violations. The organizations also ensure basic rights of indigenous landowners, local communities, plantation workers, and smallholders.


+ no new planting in primary forest

+ consent of local people to cultivate on their land

+ limit climate change emissions

+ prohibit burning to clear land

+ keeps soils healthy and prevent erosion

+ safe pesticide use

+ decent working conditions and wages

+ compliance with local, national and international laws.

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