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The Problem with Palm Oil

  • by Jacqueline Smith
  • 7 min read

The problem with palm oil, hand squeezing liquid soap dispenser

Similar to plastic, palm oil is often demonised in the West. It’s an ingredient we’re told to avoid because of deforestation, its carbon footprint, and unethical practices. Yet, as with most things, the solution isn’t as simple as this, and it's important to understand wider contexts so you can make informed decisions. Here we go through what palm oil is, why it’s so prevalent, the issues, and what we can do about it.

TL;DR; Boycotting palm oil altogether isn’t the answer if we continue to over consume and simply shift the excessive consumption and demand onto another ingredient.


What is Palm Oil and Where Does it Come From?

Palm oil comes from oil palm trees which grow around the equator. Although originally from Africa, palm oil is now primarily produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, who make up 85% of the global supply chain. Apart from Indonesia and Malaysia there has been an increase in palm oil production in other parts of the world including South and Central America, Thailand and Western Africa. 

Palm oil is an edible oil and there are 2 forms; crude oil from squeezing the flesh of the fruit from the tree and palm kernel from the stone.

The palm oil industry has a net worth of over $61 billion dollars, and a large portion of palm oil is from smallholder farms. In Indonesia a quarter of palm oil plantations are managed by small-scale farmers who are not linked to any particular company or mill, this is forecasted to double to 60 percent by 2030. This trend is important when looking at strategies to educate, communicate and govern sustainable production processes for palm oil.


Benefits and Uses of Palm Oil

Palm oil is prevalent in so many products, it’s estimated that close to 50% of packaged products in our supermarkets contain palm oil.

But why is it used so heavily? Because it is so versatile and cheap to produce.

Here are just some examples of why it’s such a useful ingredient:

  • It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable
  • It is resistant to oxidation so can give products a longer shelf-life
  • It is stable at high temperatures so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture
  • It is also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products

This means palm oil lends itself to a whole range of products such as spreads, chocolate, cosmetics, toiletries and for general household cooking. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as a cooking oil, just like we might use sunflower or olive oil here in the UK. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world (not in the UK though).

While being a versatile ingredient, palm oil is also a very efficient crop to produce. Compared to other vegetable oils, oil palm can produce high quantities of oil over small areas of land, almost all year round. Globally, palm oil supplies 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut, or sunflower oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land. This makes it an attractive crop for farmers, who can rely on the steady income that palm oil provides. This demonstrates one of the complexities of simply boycotting palm oil if you are simply going to be switching to an alternative oil.

The Problem with Palm Oil.

So you might be wondering what the problem is. Palm oil production in theory could be a relatively sustainable and cost-effective way to get a very useful and versatile resource. The problem lies in the way in which we are farming for palm oil and the scale in which we are doing it.

Deforestation caused by palm oil

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.

Here are some scary truths about the impacts of deforestation caused by palm oil production, courtesy of WWF:

  • Up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every HOUR to make room for palm plantations.
  • There are only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. It is estimated that 6,000 orangutans are killed a year, a major factor in these deaths being forest clearing for palm production. In 2006, at least 1,500 orangutans were clubbed to death by palm workers.
  • Palm oil development allows easy access for poachers into exposed habitats that have been cleared for plantations. As a result, the Sumatran tiger population is extremely threatened.

Carbon Emissions of Palm Oil

Although relative carbon emissions of palm oil are low, our over production, deforestation, and conversion of carbon rich peat soils are throwing out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Indonesia is home to a third of the world’s tropical peatlands, which are a natural sponge for carbon emissions storing more than 20 times carbon than normal trees and vegetation. Clearing one hectare of peat forest can release 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Between 2000 and 2015 Indonesia alone cleared around six million hectares of tropical peat forest for oil palm farming, and (due to climate change) Indonesia is now prone to forest fires, causing further loss of peatlands. The dual affect of loss of the decarbonising forests and the release of carbon emissions during the fire has a devastating effect.

Palm Oil and Ethical Supply Chains Issues

In Indonesia, the palm oil industry is responsible for about 5,000 land and human rights conflicts. Nearly 45 million people live in the forests of Indonesia. In 2011, Wilmar (one of the world’s largest palm oil producers) bulldozers ransacked an entire village, destroying 40 homes to clear 40,000 hectares of land for a palm plantation.

Palm oil ranks among the U.S. Department of Labor’s top four worst industries for forced and child labour.

These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address because it doesn’t have to be this way. 

What’s being done about Palm Oil? 

Palm oil can be produced more sustainably and there is a role for companies, governments, and consumers to play.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has a production standard that sets best practices for producing and sourcing palm oil. Although not a gold standard, it encourages companies to:

  • Set robust policies to remove deforestation, conversion of other natural ecosystems, such as peatlands, and human rights abuses from their supply chains 
  • Buy and use RSPO certified palm oil across their operations globally 
  • Be transparent in their use and sourcing of palm oil ensuring they know who they are buying from and where it has been produced 

Although, RSPO is a leading organisation in fixing the issues in the palm oil industry, only 35 percent of palm growers that are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable palm oil are actually certified by the RSPO. Meaning the other 65 percent pay to be “members,” but have taken no action to adhere to the RSPO guidelines in their production practices.

In addition, with the growth in palm oil production from smallholder farms, there is a greater challenge in education, training and governance to uphold sustainable palm oil practices. 

WWF is also working with governments in both palm oil using and palm oil producing countries to make sure that national laws are in place to ensure that any palm oil traded is free of deforestation, conversion and exploitation.  

There are also corporate actions such as the No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation commitments (NDPE) have been introduced on an increasing scale by the palm oil industry.

Recommendations for us as the consumers.

So if boycotting palm oil altogether is not the answer, what can we do?

Keep educated – understanding the bigger picture around palm oil helps you make better decisions. We have a list of resources at the end of this article to get you going. Some of these resources take a different and harder stand than we do in this article, so do take the time to educate yourself and make your own mind up.

Recognise the different words for palm oil - there are many different terms for palm oil or palm oil derivatives, that can be particularly hard to spot in toiletries and cosmetics. Rainforest Action Network has a useful reference list for all of the different ways palm oil might be listed in your products. 

Buy less, waste less – only buy what you need and don’t waste what you have. As with many areas, our over consumption of palm oil is a root cause of many of the issues in the industry.

Only buy RSPO certified palm oil – this isn’t a perfect answer, but RSPO believe we should continue to use RSPO certified palm oil in products, as replacing it would result in more deforestation and natural habitat conversion. RSPO certified products that use palm oil from ‘Segregated’, ‘Identity Preserved’ or ‘Independent Smallholder Standard’ supply chains offer the greatest assurance of sustainable palm oil.

Research brands - support brands that are open and transparent about their palm oil policies. You can also use this WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard to see which brands and retailers are committed to sustainable palm oil free of deforestation and destruction of nature. 

Support the work of these organisations to help spread the word about palm oil and make a change: 

Our Palm Oil policy at nookary.

None of nookary’s products currently contain palm oil or palm oil alternatives and we have nothing in our pipeline that would change this position. If this ever does change, we will be clear about the ingredients we have chosen and why and how we are sourcing it.

We do have a small number of products in our curated range that contain palm oil, all of which are certified RSPO. 



Sources and Further reading 


8 things to know about palm oil, WWF

Top 10 facts you need to know about palm oil, One Green Planet

Facts on palm oil, Palm Oil Alliance

How the world got hooked on palm oil, Guardian

Palm oil – deforestation for everyday products, Rainforest Rescue 

Palm Oil Fact Sheet, Deforestation and Palm Oil

Forests and Landscapes in Indonesia - Word Resources Institute 

Destruction of Tropical Peatland Is an Overlooked Source of Emissions - World Resources Institute

Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human Rights Abuses, Benjamin Skinner in Bloomberg

Eco-Friendly Palm Oil is a Lie - One Green Planet 

Smallholder palm oil farmers can farm sustainably, but external support is necessary, SNV

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