Whether or not you’ve heard of palm oil, you likely consume it or use it on a regular basis. Since the 1970s the demand for vegetable oil rose dramatically and so began the era of large-scale oil palm plantations. Palm oil is considered one of the most high quality and versatile vegetable oils because it can be separated into distinct oils with different properties. Because of its versatility, palm oil has replaced animal fat and vegetable oils in many of our favorite products. Today, palm oil is used as a cooking oil; a main ingredient in margarine; an ingredient in ice cream, baked goods and ready-to-eat meals; a base for waxes, lipstick, polishes, soaps, shampoos and most liquid detergents; a biofuel; and as an industrial lubricant. But despite its usefulness, the mass production of palm oil has far reaching environmental and social impacts.
Palm oil comes from the oil palm tree (Elaeisguineensis) which is native to West Africa. Traditionally, the oil palm tree was cultivated for subsistence and used as a food, fiber and medicine. They were originally grown in traditional small-scale agricultural systems and inter-planted with other perennial and annual crops. The oil palm tree thrives in the tropics of Africa, but since the rise of palm oil plantations it is also found in Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. Palm oil cultivation is considered one of the fastest-growing monocrop plantations in these regions.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), most of the palm oil industry’s expansion occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2000, the world was covered in 9.7 million hectares of palm oil plantations, and these two countries accounted for just over half of the total area. Nigeria had just over 30% of the world’s total plantation area. Since then, the palm oil plantations have continued to expand because of their high yield (per hectare per year) compared to other vegetable oils. Unfortunately, this productivity has also come at a great cost to wildlife and humans.
Companies that make their way into less developed countries to start new plantations can have negative social impacts on local communities. Companies run into problems with local communities when they start to challenge the communities’ rights and livelihood. When tropical forests have been cut down to create or expand plantations, forest-dwelling peoples have been displaced. The appeal for starting palm oil plantations has been in part because of its low production costs compared to other vegetable oils. Costs tend to be lower with palm oil production because of low labor costs within plantations. In the countries where oil palm trees can grow, workers often receive low wages for their labor.
Two of the most serious environmental offenses of palm oil plantations are the large scale conversion of tropical forests and the loss of critical habitats for endangered species. To establish large palm oil plantations, companies have to clear enough space to start planting their monocrop of oil palm trees. Many of the world’s tropical forests have been clear cut to make way for large scale palm oil production. According to research conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Princeton University, they estimated that 55-60% of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s oil palm expansion that happened between 1990 and 2005 wiped out virgin forests.
Despite their high ecological significance and biodiversity, large areas of forest continue to be cut down. As a result, critical habitats for endangered species such as rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans are compromised and destroyed. Species that once thrived in these tropical forests become displaced and suffer from a lack of food and habitat. Many of the world’s most biodiverse forests are being threatened and destroyed by palm oil plantations. For example, Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem is under threat, even though it’s the last place where rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans co-exist. Not only does this ecosystem consists of rainforests, but includes mountainous terrain and peat swamps.
Other negative impacts of large scale palm oil production include: soil erosion and pollution, water pollution, and contribution to climate change. Palm oil plantations are usually planted in rows up and down hillsides, and since they’re not planted along the contours, erosion becomes an issue. The soil and waterways also become polluted from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and effluent that comes from the palm oil processing mills. The conversion of biodiverse tropical forests to monocropped plantations reduces the “carbon sink” capacity of the world’s forests. According to WWW, “tropical peatland forests in Indonesia… store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world.”
In more ways than once, the deforestation of these tropical ecosystems is harmful to humans and wildlife. Palm oil has received praise for its versatility and low productions costs, but in reality these plantations have many negative impacts on the environment and the communities that rely and live within these diverse forests. Next time you go to the store, hopefully you’ll think twice about buying palm oil. Look carefully at the ingredients of products and opt instead for more sustainable alternatives.