Palm Oil: How Half of the Supermarket is Killing the Rainforest

Eleni Spanolios

Palm oil.  It is the most popular edible oil in the world, but not because of its taste. The process of pressing palm oil is extremely efficient.  Combined with this efficiency is its amazing versatility and an incredibly low cost of production. These three qualities create a miracle oil in the eyes of businesses all over the world. Today, palm oil is used in products from processed baked goods to toothpaste to biofuel. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), it can be found in over half of the products at the local supermarket.  Although the economic benefits of palm oil are unrivaled, there is a very real consequence, the rainforests.

Palm oil output Oil palm trees grow most favorably in subtropical environments, like rainforests. Malaysia and Indonesia are the world’s greatest producers of palm oil due to their climates. The problem with these trees is that rainforests are being burned down and replaced by oil palm plantations. The eradication of rainforest environments yields a disastrous environmental impact. Palm oil production poses a threat to the thousands of endangered species that call the Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests home. In addition to the threat to local wildlife, palm oil companies have been known to exploit native peoples and local workers. This social threat is amplified by the millions of tons of carbon emissions that are released into the air due to deforestation every year.

According to the WWF, Sumatra, an island nation part of Indonesia, has lost 85% of its rainforests due to deforestation. Burning the land in what is known as a peat fire is the most common method due to its speed and low expense, but it is the most harmful.

All matter is composed of carbon; it is the basis of all life on earth. The carbon held within all living things is released back into the environment during decomposition. Burning trees is an incredibly rapid form of decomposition. Burning anything is a form of combustion whose byproducts are carbon dioxide and water vapor, which are leading greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The copious amounts that are released into the atmosphere when land is being cleared for oil palm plantations does nothing but harm planet earth and the many animals of the rainforest. To learn more about the peat fires in Indonesia and Malaysia check out this article from the WWF.

Billows of smoke containing carbon dioxide as a result of burning forests in Sumatra to clear land for agriculture.As the environmental cons are so prolific, why is there no push to eradicate the use of palm oil? The answer falls under consumerism. Never before has there been a product that is so versatile and so cheap. According to the WWF, palm oil comprises 40% of the world vegetable oil use while only taking up about 6% of the global area used to cultivate vegetable oil crops. Palm oil contributes greatly to the economic growth of many subtropical, impoverished countries. It allows the local people an opportunity to find work that pays enough to escape poverty.  In addition, cutting palm oil out of the consumer market would be a massive industrial change that would ultimately fail. The product is too useful and too integral to many of the most popular products to be eradicated. Instead, the focus has been made on providing methods of sustainable palm oil development. By focusing on changing how the industry cultivates the crop rather than just forgoing the plant, real progress can be achieved. The industry will not simply find the next “miracle plant” and continue cultivating that through environmentally unsound methods. By changing how the industry cultivates palm oil, markets remain high and a shift toward more sustainable cash-crop farming for many plants is made.

In regards to palm oil, there are a variety of initiatives that have come out of the movement for sustainability. The first initiative is to educate the consumer. Most citizens of developed countries do not know what is in many of the processed products that they buy, let alone the environmental impact that those products have. Through education, the truth about palm oil production can be spread to the masses. This is just the start of a chain. Sustainability and green initiatives are hot topics across the world.  Today’s consumers want to feel good about the products they purchase. Shareholders of major companies begin to demand that action be taken against unsustainable methods of palm Oil Palmoil production. To keep its shareholders happy, a company will respond by changing its production strategies. These new practices are eventually passed on to the field workers and local businesses in producer countries.  Once environmentally friendly methods resonate with the grassroots workers, they are here to stay.

This basic procedure has not only been implemented, but has lead to success.  The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an example of such. This international stockholder forum aims to make sustainability an industry norm.  Working with eight initiatives in mind to improve the industry standard, the RSPO certifies providers of sustainable palm oil so that consumers can make educated purchases. With more than 2,500 members, the RSPO has been a real force for change.  To find out more, click here.

There is still a long way to go before palm oil stops posing a serious threat to the already depleted rainforests. With only 20% of global palm oil being RSPO certified (according to RSPO.org) there is plenty of room for improvement. It all starts at the consumer level and it is up to the general population to become educated on the issue of palm oil.  Confronting the most common product in the supermarket is a major challenge, but looking for RSPO certified products is a small step that can go a long way for the future of planet earth.

Editor: Shreya Singireddy