In the 20 years between 1995 and 2015, global production of palm oil increased from 15.2 million tons to 62.6 million tons, according to the European Palm Oil Alliance. There's more palm oil produced today than any other vegetable oil in the world, and the majority of it comes from Indonesia (53 percent) and Malaysia (32 percent). Other parts of the world, including Central America, Thailand and Western Africa, are beginning to increase production because the demand for it continues to increase.
The oil is found in many baked goods and packaged foods because it's an ideal oil for these products. It has a high cooking temperature, which helps the oil keep its structure under high heat so it provides crispiness and crunchiness. The taste and smell of palm oil is neutral. It's smooth and creamy and has an excellent mouthfeel — and, it's a healthier alternative to trans fats, which is one of the reasons its use has increased so dramatically in the past few decades. As trans fats have been phased out for healthier options, palm oil has replaced them.
While palm oil is a good alternative to trans fats for the human body, palm oil's effect on the environment and the people directly and indirectly involved with its creation is detrimental. Here's a look at some of the issues with palm oil.
Where palm oil comes from
Oil palm trees seem to have originated in West Africa, and Africans have used the oil of the tree for thousands of years. The trees were eventually taken to other parts of the world and eventually became a plantation crop.
A palm fruit contains two types of oil. The palm fruit oil comes comes from the pulp of the mesocarp, the peach-colored layer right under the skin. The kernel at the center contains what's called palm kernel oil. According to an NIH review of palm oil and its effects on the heart, the oil from the mesocarp is lower in saturated fat and contains vitamin E and the antioxidant beta-carotene. The palm kernel oil has more saturated fats, and it's the oil used in baked goods and some beauty products because that higher amount of saturated fat allows it to stay stable at higher temperatures and give it a longer shelf life.
Because of the properties described above, it's in a wide variety of products, including chocolate, packaged bread and also things you don't eat, like detergent or shampoo.
Palm oil's environmental problems
Palm oil now provides 35 percent of the world's vegetable oil, according to GreenPalm. There are between 12 and 13 million hectares (about 460,000 to 500,000 square miles) of palm oil tree plantations in the world, and that number continues to increase.
Whenever a biodiverse area is destroyed and replaced with a monoculture, it's devastating to the environment. Significant deforestation has occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as other areas of the world to make way for palm oil plantations, causing many problems, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Endangerment of species: The orangutan is the animal most associated with the loss of habitat when plantations are planted. GreenPalm reports that in 1990 there were 315,000 orangutans in the wild. Now there are fewer than 50,000 of them. Those that still exist are "split into small groups with little chance of long-term survival."
Orangutan Foundation International says that the expansion of palm oil plantations is the main threat to the species' survival in the wild. If the orangutans aren't killed during the clearing and burning of the forests, they are displaced from their homes and have difficulty finding food. If they enter a plantation to find food, they are considered agricultural pests and killed.
A team of scientists have studied the effect that the expansion of palm oil harvesting into Africa would have on primates. Their study shows that the areas in Africa that produce the most palm oil also have the highest concentration of primates. Their fear is that companies needing to meet demand will move production into Africa, which is home to nearly 200 primate species.
"The main message is that, due to the large overlap between areas that are suitable to grow oil palm and areas that host many vulnerable primates, it will be extremely challenging to reconcile oil palm expansion and African primate conservation," Dr. Giovanni Strona of the European Commission Joint Research Center told BBC News.
Of course, the orangutans and other primates aren't the only species harmed when the forests are cleared. Only 15 percent of species survive when a forest is cleared to make way for a plantation. In addition to primates, tigers, rhinoceros and elephants also are endangered by these plantations. Additionally, birds, bugs, snakes and other creatures are affected, as well as hundreds of thousands of plant species.
Release of carbon emissions: Indonesian forests store more carbon per hectare than the Brazilian rainforests. When those forests are cleared to make way for a plantation, the carbon released contributes to global warming. It's estimated that between 2000 and 2010, palm oil plantations were responsible for 2 to 9 percent of tropical worldwide emissions.
It's not just the clearing of trees and other plants that causes the problem; peatlands in the forests are drained and burned to make way for the plantations. Those peatlands hold more carbon than the forests above — up to 18 to 28 times more. All of that carbon is released when the peatlands are destroyed.
The solution isn't as simple as stopping the production of palm oil. Other plants used to produce vegetable oil are just as detrimental to the environment. IUCN released a report in June 2018 saying rapeseed, soy or sunflower seed requires up to nine times more land in order to yield similar amounts of oil compared to palm oil.
"If palm oil didn't exist you would still have the same global demand for vegetable oil," said the report's lead author Erik Meijaard.
Palm oil's social problems
The creation of palm plantations also affects the human population.
Displacement of indigenous people: Indigenous people often don't have titles for the land where they've lived on for generations. According to Spott, in areas such as Borneo, villagers are pushed off the land when the government gives it to palm oil companies.
Lack of workers' rights: Child labor is common in Malaysia with an estimated 72,000 to 200,000 children working on the plantations with little or no pay and harsh working conditions, according to World Vision, an organization that works to eliminate poverty and its causes. Human trafficking also occurs in Malaysia when workers have their passports and official documents taken from them as they are forced to work in abusive conditions. Other workers face poor working conditions, including the lack of clean water.
Pollution: Pollution in various forms goes hand in hand with the creation and maintenance of plantations. Fertilizers and pesticides pollute the drinking water. The fires used to burn the original forests create a haze that fills the air. In 2015 in Indonesia, there were over 500,000 cases of respiratory illnesses reported due to this haze. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that over 100,000 deaths in Southeast Asia each year are associated with "particulate matter exposure attributed to landscape fires."
Sustainable palm oil
Can palm oil be sustainable both environmentally and socially? The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and the organization they helped establish in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), believe it can. They are attempting to create sustainability within the industry. The RSPO has created a sustainable certification program that protects workers, indigenous people, forests and wildlife while requiring a reduction in greenhouse emissions.
So far, 20 percent of palm oil production has been certified to the RSPO standards. With many major manufacturers pledging to only use 100 percent sustainable palm oil, it's difficult to see how that's possible when 80 percent of the palm oil plantations are not yet certified sustainable. WWF keeps a scorecard of companies that have made a commitment and the percentage of the commitment each company has reported reaching.
However, a report by Greenpeace, A Moment of Truth, reveals that some of what's on the WWF scorecard may be inaccurate. When companies like Nestle, Unilever, and General Mills voluntarily released their supply chain information, Greenpeace found "problematic producers who are actively clearing rainforests." Other brands are being less transparent about their supply chain. But, transparent or not, Greenpeace's report seems to reveal that companies are not able to completely meet the standards they've set for sourcing sustainable palm oil.
While some improvements have been made since 2004, there's still a long way to go in ensuring that the creation of palm oil doesn't harm the environment or people.