What’s the Controversy with Palm Oil (and is Sustainable Palm Oil Actually Sustainable)?
I’m guessing you’ve heard of palm oil. And I’m guessing that you’ve heard that it’s bad, or at least, you heard it’s bad for the orangutans. But if it’s so bad, you’re probably also wondering why all the companies that use it think it’s so good, seeing as it’s in around half of all packaged goods in the supermarket.
There’s got to be a reason for that, right? Otherwise wouldn’t they just swap it out for something else?
And what about certified sustainable palm oil? That sounds good, yes? So why do many environmental groups call for a boycott or ban on all palm oil, including certified sustainable palm oil?
Palm oil gets talked about a lot, but sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Here’s the lowdown: what’s so good about palm oil, what’s so bad about palm oil, and what certified sustainable palm oil really means.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, and it is produced from the fruit of the oil palms (a type of palm tree): primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, but to a lesser extent the American oil palm Elaeis oleifera and the maripa palm Attalea maripa. Palm kernel oil is a different oil, but it comes from the same plant – this oil is produced from the seed, not the fruit.
Oil palms are tropical rainforest plants, requiring high rainfall, humid conditions and warm temperatures. It grows best when planted 10° north or south of the equator. Oil palms are more productive when grown in plantations, fruiting after 2-3 years until 25-30 years, when they need to be replaced.
What’s So Good About Palm Oil?
Oil palm trees produce more oil from less land than any other oil crop (5x the second-highest oil crop, rapeseed, 6x more than groundnut and sunflower oils, and more than 10x crops like soy bean or coconut oil). The trees also fruit continuously, making them a reliable crop to grow and accessible for smallholders.
The fruits and kernels also have lower production costs than other oil crops, which makes palm oil an efficient and profitable crop to grow.
Because of this, palm oil is the cheapest plant oil to produce (whilst still being profitable for the growers), which makes it popular for use in foods and toiletries. 10% of palm oil is currently grown to produce biofuel.
Palm oil is tasteless, and has a long shelf life compared to other plant oils. Another advantage of palm oil is that it is semi-solid at room temperature, and can be easily refined into liquid and solid oils. The solid fraction has a melting point of 35°C (95°F). Solid palm oil is used in baked goods and pastry as a cheaper (and dairy-free) alternative to butter, in chocolate and desserts as a much cheaper alternative to cocoa butter, and in dairy-free spreads.
In cosmetics it’s a good foaming agent and considered preferable to using animal tallow (animal fat). It’s often used in soap to create bars that are harder and last longer.
In the 1960s, with concerns around the high saturated fat content of animal products like lard and butter, manufacturers began making alternatives by hydrogenating vegetable oils low in saturated fat to make them solid. Partly this was driven by health concerns, but it was also cheaper to produce. These trans-fats was later discovered to be even less healthy than saturated fats and many countries are now legislating to remove trans-fats from food (there are bans in Europe and Canada).
This left manufacturers looking for an alternative, which they found in palm oil.
Very few plant oils are solid at room temperature: the main alternative is coconut oil which has a lower melting point of 24°C (75°F). Cocoa butter is very expensive, and shea butter is rarely used in food products. With the rise in demand for vegetarian and vegan products, palm oil is a good alternative for products that traditionally would use butter or animal fat.
‘Good’, of course, depends on your perspective.
What’s So Bad About Palm Oil?
One of the biggest concerns with oil palms is that this demand for palm oil has meant a significant amount of deforestation, because forests are what grow on the land that is prime for palm oil plantations.
Deforestation means displacement of indigenous people and wildlife habitat loss as old growth rainforest is cleared to make way for new plantations. Animals that have lost their homes enter plantations looking for food: they are seen as a threat to the oil palm crops and considered pests, and often shot.
84% of all the palm oil produced worldwide comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. This also happens to be the only place in the world where orangutans live (on the islands of Borneo – which has both Indonesian and Malaysian territory – and Sumatra, which is Indonesian).
The WWF estimates there were over 230,000 orangutans in the wild a century ago, but their population has halved over the last 100 years, and the Sumatran orangutan is now critically endangered.
Orangutans might be the most famous victims of palm oil, but they aren’t the only species at risk. The Sumatran elephant, tiger and rhino and the Bornean pygmy elephant are also threatened.
Land clearing isn’t the only threat to wildlife – poaching and logging are also issues – although in Indonesia it can be easier to get a land clearing permit than a logging permit, so land is often cleared for logging under an oil palm permit, but no oil palms are subsequently planted.
Palm oil isn’t just a threat for wildlife: it’s a threat for the climate. Another concern with palm oil is that many areas used for oil palm plantations are natural peatlands. Clearing of peatlands and planting of oil palms in these ares increase risk of fire, and the UN suggests peatland fires contribute around 5% of human-caused carbon emissions.
Palm oil is also the 6th most heavily fertilised food crop in the world per hectare. Chemical nitrogen fertilisers are made using natural gas, which can react with nitrogen gas in the air during an exchange that takes place at 400-500°C. This requires fossil fuels not only for the reaction but also to get to these temperatures.
It is estimated that the nitrogen fertiliser industry accounts for 3-5% of all natural gas used and causes more than 1% of all greenhouses gas emissions produced worldwide.
What Is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil – and Is It Sustainable?
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 by a collective of industry representatives, environmental groups and social advocacy groups to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. It now has over 4,000 members worldwide, who have all committed to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.
To support this, the RSPO have developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The RSPO trademark was launched in 2011, and RSPO currently certify about 20% of global palm oil production.
The RSPO is not without criticism. When the certification began in 2005 it was found to be complicated, costly and hard to implement. Many consider the standards to be weak, enforcement is limited and there is little retribution for non-compliance.
Certification can be given to palm oil plantations planted on land cleared of tropical forest, which begin as non-certified palm oil and later apply for the sustainable palm oil accreditation: this hides the reality that this certified plantation was recently tropical forest.
Studies have repeatedly shown that certified sustainable palm oil does not stop deforestation (although it may slow it down), it does not reduce the threat of fire or halt the decline in orangutan populations, and there are questions around whether it actually lifts people out of poverty.
Is ‘Certified Sustainable Palm Oil’ Greenwashing?
Many critics of the RSPO call it little more than greenwashing; a way for corporate palm oil stakeholders to look good to the public whilst continuing business as usual.
Some call for a full ban on palm oil, and many shoppers choose to boycott palm oil altogether.
Others critics argue that despite its flaws, a certification scheme for sustainable palm oil is still better than nothing at all, and it provides a way for organisations and companies to transition to more sustainable practices.
Supporters of the scheme, which include the WWF, argue that palm oil is necessary because it is cheap, more efficient than other oil crops, and provides economic benefits to the countries that produce it.
But production has roughly doubled every year since the 1970s, from around 2.5 million tonnes in 1970 to 75 million tonnes today (it’s estimated to reach 240 million tonnes by 2050). It is hard to imagine that such rapid growth can happen in a way that is truly sustainable.
This continued demand means the threat to natural tropical rainforest areas remains as great as ever, as does the threat to wildlife.
What Can We Do About the Palm Oil Problem?
Start With an Audit of Your Pantry and Bathroom Cupboard.
If palm oil is something you’re concerned about, the first thing to do is find out whether any products you’re using actually contain palm oil.
If you live in Europe, an EU law on food information that came into force in 2014 requires that palm oil must be clearly labelled as palm oil: it cannot be called vegetable oil. The US FDA also requires that oils be declared by their common or usual name in food products.
However, in Australia there is no such requirement and palm oil can be labelled as vegetable oil. Most companies will have information about whether they use palm oil on their websites, or will answer requests for information, so you may have to contact them directly to find out.
With non-food products, palm oil may be labelled as Elaeis guineensis, which is the name given to palm oil by the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).
So far, so simple. However there are actually over 200 ingredients in food and cosmetics that can be derived from palm oil (you can find the list here). If you come across an ingredient in a product, ask the manufacturer for clarification of its origins.
If a Company Uses Palm Oil, is it Certified Sustainable Palm Oil? Switch Out Non-Sustainable Palm Oil First.
Most companies who use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) don’t use the logo on their packaging, but they will be keen to tell you their sustainability credentials on their website or if you ask.
If your audit reveals a lot of products containing palm oil, a next step would be to find out which ones use CSPO and which ones do not.
This gives you a priority list of products to swap out first. Better to support a company at least trying to do better over one that is not.
As well as swapping products, it is worth telling both the company whose product you’re no longer buying and the company whose product you’re switching to why you’re making the swap. Send a quick email, letting them know. This makes them aware that their customers are concerned about palm oil in products.
Slowly Switch Out Products that contain Palm Oil for Those That Don’t.
One by one, as the things you buy run out, start looking for a palm-oil free version.
Some products are easy switches. Palm oil doesn’t need to be in things like peanut butter, it’s added in because it’s a cheap filler. The same goes for chocolate bars: palm oil is simply cheaper than cocoa butter.
Some products are trickier. It may mean switching to a slightly different product (muesli over processed cereal) or it may mean deciding to make our own (and learning how to make our own).
The more processed a product is, the more likely it is to contain palm oil. Switch to less processed foods and less packaging and you’ll reduce your palm oil consumption, naturally.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t oil palms, it’s the way we’re using palm oil. Supporters of palm oil love it because its cheap. But do we really need to make more cheap fast food and processed snacks with empty calories?
Everything comes with a price. Cheap palm oil that results in deforestation, habitat loss, displacement of indigenous people, wildlife extinction and greenhouse gas emissions actually seems like a very high price to pay for low-cost shampoo and snacks.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Is palm oil something you’re concerned about or not? Have you ever audited the products you buy to find out how many contain palm oil? Do you have any ideas for anyone wanting to reduce their palm oil? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share in the comments below!
All links to facts and figures can be found here.
Thank you for your informative article. Sometimes navigating to find the best choice can be confusing and exhausting, with Palm oil just one of the decision points (I also try to consider factors such as food miles, plastic/excessive packaging, fair trade…)
Oh Alice, I totally agree! In fact I’m currently working on a project trying to map out and navigate some of these decisions. There are so many thins wrong with thecurrent system. As my friend’s boss says to her, which bit of the world are we saving today?
I totally disagree with this write-up. Palm oil plantations does not in any way need the amount of land needed by other oils. I lived in West Africa and it’s been part of our cuisines for centuries. Our economy Systems have been together with the plantations and we have had lots of benefits of the great plant. To all Sirs, I recommend a book called palm oil miracle by dr Bruce Fife. A great book to read.
Thanks for the interesting and well researched article.
I avoid palm oil completely preferring the organic olive oil we buy when on holiday in the Provence, France, or if we’re staying on an organic farm in Tuscany, Italy. Otherwise I use organic German Rape Seed oil (I live in Germany) or organic German linseed oil, and local organic butter. I don’t buy processed foods so avoid palm oil anyway.
Thanks for sharing, Jean! Glad you found it useful. I thought I avoided palm oil too, but I do occasionally buy dried fruit from the bulk store and this is sometimes glazed with ‘vegetable oil’ so I’m intending on looking into that. That’s the only thing I can think of, I don’t buy anything in packaging so I know I’m safe there!
Wow, that is the best write up about palm oil thank you. I’ve been following the palm oil investigations team on fb for years and I’m horrified at the results of the increasing land clearing. Many people think it’s only in food and fail to realise it’s in most foods in their pantry, eg. Soft fillings in chocolate are loaded with it. It’s all the rest of the products in your laundry and cleaning cupboard that really brings it home. Thanks again for an excellent article, I will share with others.
Thanks Chris! I waded through a lot of reports and papers and websites (and greenwash) to get to this point, I can tell you! I was always unsure about how sustainable certified sustainable palm oil was, but now I’ve decided that it’s not an industry I want to support. If we were barely using it in the 1980s it is hard to see how it has become a human essential. I don’t buy anything that has it in, not because I actively tried to avoid it but simply because I don’t buy packaged and processed foods, or ready made toiletries. Although I’m interested to find out if the dried fruit I sometimes buy from the bulk store that is glazed with ‘vegetable oil’ is palm oil, or something else..
Bloody excellent article!! I’ve been suspect about ‘sustainable’ palm oil since I heard the term and you’ve confirmed what my gut already knew. Thank you so much for writing this for all our education. Legend!
Thanks Karla! I did link to some of the papers I found that reviewed all the data, but there are heaps of them. Some shine certified sustainable palm oil in a better light than others, but they all agree it’s not great :(
Thank you, what a good read. There is so much information online that at times it can become overwhelming. This was easy to read and digest and these type of articles are more likely to educate me and infulence my consumer choices. Off to do a quick audit of the kitchen and bathroom. I’m feeling more confident than I would have 12 months ago now that I am reading blogs like yours and rethinking so much of what I buy and use. But there is always room for improvement and more to learn. Thanks again for sharing.
Thank you Cheryl! I know exactly what you mean about the internet being overwhelming, and there can be a lot of opinions and misinformation woven in with the facts (depending on the topic of course). Believe me I read a lot of papers before writing this! I’m actually thinking I might do another post down the track of how to figure out if you’re using palm oil, and substitutions etc but we will see. I felt I still had heaps to add! ;)
Well written,concise, and gets to the heart of the issue. Great read.
Thank you Daniel :)
This was very informative. Thank you for taking the time to share it.
Thanks Bonnie, glad you found it useful :)
Great article!! Short, concise and very readable!! Thanks for summing it up so well. I’ll certainly share it with others.
I wonder what you think about the “Shop Ethical!” app?? I’ll soon return to Australia after having lived overseas for a number of years so I haven’t used the app in a while. Before moving away, I used the app on a daily basis. You can simply scan the barcode of any product and the app will inform you about how ethical the producer is, taking into account ingredients such as palm oil but also a number of other factors, e.g. child labour, etc. The app also lists a number of alternative products that may be more ethical. If a producer has received a low rating, you can look up the details of why they score badly, or vice versa why they get a high score.
I wonder whether you have used this app and if you agree with how companies score from an environmental perspective? I find it incredibly hard to figure out the exact ingredients of every product I buy so I try to let others do the work for me by buying from websites such as biome, hellogreen or floraandfauna or by using the app I mentioned above. Do you think these are valid alternatives for those of us who are too lazy to contact producers about ingredients in their products?
Hi Esthi, first of all thank you for the lovely comment and I laugh that you think this is short! Honestly cutting it down to this length was hard enough, and it is still pretty long, so I’m glad you didn’t think it too long. Hmm, apps. There was a lot more I wanted to say about finding out about palm oil and alternatives, but as I said, ran out of space. I might do another post in future. I don’t use apps but I have heard them recommended. My only concern would be that they are not kept up to date. And there are so many! Because I don’t buy things with barcodes (because I don’t buy things with packaging as a rule) I haven’t needed them, but I do refer to the Baptist Australia Labour Behind the Label report every year for clothing brand reviews. I think if they are a tool that works for you, use them! And write to the companies you’re still undecided on, if need be.
Hi Lindsay. I thought you’d say that you aren’t using the app given you don’t buy supermarket products and live a zero waste lifestyle. In case you do end up writing another post about palm oil or shopping ethically in gernal, I think it would be great to also include a few ideas for those who are still on a journey to a zero waste lifestyle or those who are only able to do ‘reduced waste’. As I’m sure you’re well aware, zero waste can simply be too overwhelming for some or they simply haven’t got a choice. I feel I fall into both of these categories to a certain extend. I live in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea and avoiding supermarket products is basically impossible. There are no bulk buying options, going to the local markets is tricky for expats due to the security situation in this city and there aren’t any shops around with organic or ethically produced products. I’m sure there are others, e.g. people in remote areas, who also find it difficult to live a zero waste lifestyle. For those of us, it would be wonderful to find out about ways to at least do things better even if it isn’t ideal. I think the app I mentioned above might be one such imperfect solution. I did read a quote recently that said: We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly. I certainly agree with that and I assume you do, too. I guess buying supermarket products can’t be described as zero waste or even plastic free but for those of us who haven’t got a choice it’s nice to see that there are still small changes we can make. Anyway, just a suggestion for your (possible) future article :) Thanks for the advice re Baptist Australia Labour Behind the Label report. I’ll start looking at that. And thanks also for the reminder to hold companies accountable and to write to them about their packaging, ingredients and work ethics in general.
Hi Esthi, oh I totally agree about the journey – there is always so much more to say than I can ever fit into a blog post! I do have it on my radar to write a follow-up palm oil post that’s more actionable, but no promises as to when that will be! My to-do list gets longer every day!
Yes. A great article. I live in Peru about 100 miles from palm oil plantaciones, where rainforest, secondary forest and smallholidngs have been cleared to plant palm oil plantations. One company (Shanusi) paid the Peruvian government about £4 per hectare (£1.50 per acre) for 7,000 hectares (about 17,000 acres). https://cordilleraescalera.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/barranquita-resiste/
Oh Richard :( When I read all the predictions about how much palm oil we will ‘need’ by 2050 I shuddered, because it’s going to mean ripping out all the rainforests in all the other continents. Africa, South and Central America are all prime growing regions. And it’s so crazy that we are just using a lot of this stuff for cheap fast food, non-foods like processed junk and to make shampoo more bubbly! Because palm oil is naturally red lots of companies use it to make their fried foods more ‘golden’. And 10% is grown for biofuel! We are chopping down primary rainforests on peatland to grow biofuel! That is nuts. Sigh…
Fantastic article! I’ve been avoiding palm oil for years but this is the best, clearest explanation of the whys I have come across. Thank you!
Thank you Stefanie :)
Thanks for a really clear exposition of the issues. One thing (among many) that’s so confusing about this topic is that palm oil goes under so many names. Since trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle I have become a reader of product labels!
That’s true Tony, especially the derivatives! At least in the EU and the US actual palm oil has to be labelled – unlike in Australia when even that can be avoided…
Thanks for this article Lindsay I have just realised that the Panko bread crumbs I buy and love have palm oil won’t be getting that brand anymore have just researched and found two options make my own or there is an Australian brand which doesn’t have palm oil, so good to be informed
My pleasure Sandra! I just use regular breadcrumbs I make from my bread crusts – does the job fine in my opinion! ;)
Thanks Lindsay for this awesome information you have gathered. It certainly brings home and reminds of the actions we need to take on this big palm oil issue. The earth and everything on it so needs the rainforests.
My pleasure Jo :)
This is a fantastic post on palm oil and the most informative and helpful piece I’ve ever read, thank you Lindsay! (IG Nicole @plantpower.jamesthevan)
Thanks Nicole! Believe me I read a LOT of papers!
Thank you so much for this informative and accessible article. I had been wondering about palm oil…
I’ll be sharing your article with friends.
Thank you, much appreciated.
Thanks Lindsay for this article! Lots of useful facts in there!
Thanks Alexandra :)
Interesting article, thank you.
My daughters both have requested me to not buy things with palm oil in them and we have been switching brands wherever we find it. The brands without palm oil are obviously more expensive, but we just consume less of them to compensate. I agree that of the best ways to avoid palm oil (as well as lots of preservatives, firming agents and the like) is to make your own – stop buying shop bought cakes, biscuits etc and get baking! I think your best suggestion though was to write to the companies concerned – I sometimes feel overwhelmed about the environment and feel that the small thing I am doing will make no difference whatsoever in the face of the vast quantities of products on supermarket shelves containing palm oil (they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t selling, right?). But instead of just switching brands, I am going to start making my feelings known to these big companies and maybe, just maybe, they might start to listen.
And we need more voices like yours educating people about palm oil and the massive environmental consequences of its production. Otherwise people will turn around in 50 years time when there is hardly any rainforest left, orangutans are extinct and global temperatures are out of control and say “oh, I didn’t realise when I bought that big tin of cheap chocolates at Christmas that I was contributing to this!
Hi Sarah, rather fitting that I read this after Christmas when soooo many cheap Christmas chocolates must have been purchased and consumed…sigh… I do think that doing something is one thing, but telling people why (whether that’s friends and family, the stores we buy from, the companies who make the products – or ALL of the above) is equally and possibly more important. Without the ‘why’ our actions can lose meaning.
Also, your daughters both sound awesome – tell them I think so! :)
Very good article. As Executive Director of Orangutan Land Trust, a charity committed to enabling sustainable solutions for the survival of the orangutan in the wild, I believe choosing sustainable palm oil is the way forward. Indeed, most organisations engaged in this issue do not support a blanket boycott of palm oil. When you suggest “switching out of palm oil,” you may unwittingly be contributing to greater negative impacts, as alternatives tend to have weaker sustainability criteria and require so much more land to produce. In the tropics, such switches would be devastating to the remaining rainforests and biodiversity. We believe the best alternative to palm oil is sustainable palm oil.
An article I wrote a few years ago explains more: http://www.theswitchreport.com.au/top-stories/boycotting-palm-oil-not-way-save-orangutans/
Hi Michelle, we’ve already had this conversation on Twitter but just for the benefit of anyone who might be interested, I stand by what I said there – that palm oil is used as a cheap filler for processed products, and 1/3 of all food currently produced going to waste. I think that by avoiding processed foods as much as possible, choosing climate-appropriate foods where not (for example, yes palm oils may produce 5x the oil of sunflower or olive crops, but neither sunflowers or olives will grow in rainforest areas, but they do grow in Europe were significant old growth forest has been cleared for farming centuries ago). I’m not saying let’s chop down the rainforests to plant something else, I’m saying let’s prioritise these resources as wildlife havens, indigenous homelands, tourism hotspots and/or peatland carbon sinks and not a short-lived exploitative way to grow cash crops. I also stand by my statement – which I think you said was unrealistic – that we urgently need to do something about the 1/3 of food going to waste. We’re making palm oil into products that don’t even get eaten.
Great article. Thank you very much. I noticed that a favourite bar soap has a main ingredient of palm oil. I am switching soaps for sure.
Hi Ina, it does get everywhere. Good spot!
Hey, great article! I’m preparing one in my language can you share the reports where you read that sustainable oil is not that much sustainable? I’d love to read it and perhaps use the info in my article. In general, I miss sources in your article.. maybe you can add it for relevancy.
Hi Barbara, all the references can be found if you follow the link at the bottom of the article (just above the sharing buttons). Because there were so many, and so I didn’t have to constantly be checking back for broken links I put them all in one place. Hope that helps!
Very informative article. The number of times I check ingredients in the supermarket and put them back on the shelf because they contain some palm oil product, I’ve lost count. I finally found one vegan margarine type product with no palm oil, the first one.
Maybe this should be a case for a petition to government (s) to force all food manufacturers to state in bold if products contain palm oil and ban the blanket term ‘sustainably sourced’ from use until there is a reliably policed system in place to verify this claim.
Generally, the public need to be more aware.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Robert. It’s never easy to police these statements – the people from marketing print all kinds of things on the labels of products (thinking also around the ‘recycablility’ – or not – of their packaging). People are very disconnected from where their food comes from, there is a lot of awareness and joining the dots required …
I am really concerned about the wildlife and the environment. I think a continous education program of the people on the ground, in fact everyone involved in the palm oil process should be in place. A proper long-term solution should be found to accommodate the producers as well as the consumer.
Thanks for the comment Peter – I think we can all relate with our concern…