By Samvita Amladi

Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil used worldwide. It is found in many products the average consumer buys and uses every day. Palm oil is a highly effective source of vegetable oil. Palm oil’s accelerated development endangers some of the planet’s most crucial and delicate habitats. 

Palm oil grows in the tropics, most of them being in Malaysia and Indonesia. According to https://gro-intelligence.com “In addition to rapidly growing consumer use, recently-enacted biodiesel mandates from around the world have driven demand for the oil to higher levels. Malaysia and Indonesia, which account for over 80 percent of the world’s palm oil production, have been the primary beneficiaries.” What this means, is that almost 80% of the world’s palm oil productions come from Malaysia and Indonesia and the uncontrolled clearing of these forests for conventional palm oil plantations has led to widespread loss of these irreplaceable and biodiverse-rich forests. Plantations have also been connected to the destruction of the habitat of endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos.

Palm oil trees produce high-quality oil used originally for cooking. 
But, it is also used for many other products including:

  •  Food products: ice cream, bread, instant noodles, and even chocolate!
  • Detergents: washing powder, cleaning powder, shampoo.
  •  Cosmetics: lipsticks, moisturizers, etc. 
  • Biofuel. 
  • Toothpaste

Palm oil is a very fruitful crop. It grants a much better yield at a cheaper cost of production than other edible oils. Global production and demand for palm oil are growing quickly. Plantations are spreading like wildfire all across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But this expansion comes at a cost. Palm oil is at the expense of tropical forests. Forests form crucial habitats for many species that are endangered and a valuable resource for some human communities. An organization called WWF conceptualizes a worldwide forum made of socially acceptable and eco-friendly manufacturing and acquisition of palm oil. If fertilized well oil palm trees can produce fruit within 4-6 years after being planted. The average life expectancy of an oil palm is 29 years. At this point, they are usually 40 feet tall. the trees are then too tall to harvest the fruit bunches. The trees are injected with pesticide, this kills them inside out, eventually, they are bulldozed to make room for more.

The production and extraction process of palm oil is a very step by step process:

This is an example of how it is harvested in a palm oil plantation called Hondupalma in Honduras. First, a worker harvests the palm fruit. He must chop off the branches so that he can remove the bunch. The gathering of the fruits is a physically exhausting job. On average, a worker harvests approximately 300 bunches a day and earns a salary of only180 Honduras lempiras, ($9.40) according to https://www.treehugger.com. Which is very cheap, compared to the amount of labor. Then, Palm fruits are delivered to Hondupalma. Trucks deliver the fruit to the steam chambers. 60% percent of the palm fruit produced at this plant is derived from plantations owned by Hondupalma. However, 40% comes from smaller farmers in the region that are unsustainable.

Hondupalma processes 60,000 tons of crude oil annually. 45,000 tons are purified on the establishment to trade both domestically and internationally. Whereas, 15,000 tons are left as crude oil to be sold to international dealers. After reaching the plant, the palm fruits must be weakened before the oil is extracted. The first step is to cook or steam them for 1 hour with hot steam (140º). Palm fruit retains its oil in tiny bubbles.  When it has been steamed, the bubbles pop and the fruit becomes malleable and oily. 

Crude oil is made from palm fruit pulp, which is about 22% of a common palm fruit bunch. In this stage, palm oil can be used for cooking. But palm kernel oil, (its outer shell) which is approximately 1.8% of a palm fruit bunch, is the more desired good and also has a lighter color than the oil made of pulp. Kernel oil gets purified and is what is used in ice cream, chocolate, soap, and cosmetics.  

This plant is an amazing example for other processing plants and is a solution for plants producing oil unsustainably. What makes this processing plant sustainable is that the water residue from producing it contains palm fruit residue, oil, and organic matter. This is unloaded into enormous bio-digesters, which obtain the methane gas (the byproduct) and use it to power a part of the plant. The entire plant requires 2000 kW to work. Only 30% is power obtained from electricity. A methane gas turbine and a steam turbine makes up for 70% of the plant’s power demand.

Locals, however, are affected in many ways by the production of palm oil.

  • Rights to land: Conflict can happen between communities and corporations over rights to land. Conflict can occur between communities and non-native workers who have been brought in to work on the plantations. This happens because both parties say that they were there first. Conflict can ensue inside communities, because of the pay gap formed when people encounter raised income from the same palm oil plantation.
  • Displacement of communities or their land: According to Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), native lands cover between 40 and 70 million hectares in Indonesia, but, only 1,000,000 hectares are ethically acknowledged by the government. Natives’ land rights are regularly not acknowledged by the government, this leads to governments unknowingly transferring their property to the corporate organizations, without the natives’ knowing. Villagers have been shoved out of their own homes and farming areas, in Borneo, Dayak people (the indigenous population of Indonesians) who have lived on inherited forest lands for many generations have been uprooted by corporate property snatches.
  • Loss of cultural heritage: Heritage sites are frequently lost because of the expansion of plantations. High Conservation Value (HCV) areas are those of global, national, cultural, archaeological, historical, ecological, economic or religious value for the ancestral culture of local communities.

The environment is also affected greatly by palm oil:

  • Deforestation: the expansion of forests to build plantations is the most notable environmental risk of palm oil processing. Building mills, roads, and housing for workers can also result in forest removal. In 1990-2005, 55-60% of palm oil development in Indonesia substituted natural forests. This has negative repercussions on the ecosystem. This includes nutrient recycling, purification of water, & soil formation and stability. These are factors all species, depend on to produce clean air, soil, and water. 
  • Loss of Biodiversity: Land clearance for plantations damages critical wildlife habitats, leading to a high loss of species. According to, http://wwf.panda.org the rate of extinction is the loss of about 10,000 species annually. Some of which could be due to the deforestation caused by palm oil plantations. The species these forests support are highly adapted to rainforest habitats and are usually used to those regions, this includes Sumatran rhinoceros and Bornean orangutan. The loss of this natural habitat means species like tigers, elephants, and orangutans are being forced into smaller areas of land. This raises the chance of friction between humans and is easier for illegal hunting and poaching to befall.
  • Land and water pollution: Fertilizers and pesticides used for palm oil trees contaminate groundwater. According to https://www.spott.org “For every metric tonne of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tonnes of palm oil mill effluent (POME) is generated from the milling process.” The leaking of POME into waterbodies harms aquatic ecosystems. POME creates extremely acidic conditions.

According to https://www.ecowatch.com “Palm oil plantations deforested almost 6,100 square miles in Indonesia between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2012 study.” 

You may not realize some of the resources you use just in your daily life. Suppose one day you’re really craving a burger. So you naturally go to Mcdonald’s. However, McDonald’s usage of palm oil is quite unnatural. Mcdonald’s could use another oil that’s more sustainable, but why palm oil? Palm oil is used because it is CHEAP. Cheap to make, and cheap to sell make both parties happy! The downside is that- as the research above shows, only a select few companies produce it sustainably. In the most current report, McDonald’s used 103,336 metric tons of palm oil in 2012. 

A solution some indigenous communities have used are:

The approach is called community-based forest management (CBFM) it is centered on giving community members the judicial authority to lead in handling the land they depend on to survive, as well as making conclusions on what the land is used for. CBFM, when implemented properly, is an amazing approach for acknowledging climate change and conserving forests. This is how WWF has helped indigenous and local communities in Papua, New Guinea (a place that is also one of the largest palm oil producers) save nearly 29.7 million acres of forest land. On August, 9 tribal leaders from Papua’s Jayapura District endorsed a document pledging to protect 242,000 acres of forest land, permanently. WWF later presented the record to the IMFE (Indonesia Ministry of Forestry and Environment), which recognized that CBFM is central to meeting the agreements Indonesia has made as part of a global deal to help keep climate change in check, this is the Paris Agreement. An ambitious goal was newly set by the Government of Papua, “At least 80% of Papua Province will remain under forest cover at all times.”

Palm oil, however, has a range of substitutes:

  • Animal Fat (should be the last resort): Cooking, Soaps, Lubricants, Fatty acids
  • Butter: Cooking
  • Olive oil: Makeup remover, Cosmetics, Cooking, Moisturizers, Hair products, etc.
  • Canola oil: Cooking etc.
  • Coconut oil: Cooking, Cosmetics, Moisturizers, Medicine, Dental health, Hair, etc. 
  • Cocoa Butter: Cosmetics, Moisturizers, Cooking, Soaps, Hair, etc.
  • Sunflower Oil: Cooking, Constipation relief, Medicines, etc.

However, not using palm oil might be worse for the environment. According to https://www.smithsonianmag.com: “No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. And along with using less land, the oil palm gobbles up significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source.” “That would mean shifting problems onto another commodity,” says Katie McCoy, the head of forest programs at CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project). From a health POV, palm oil is the perfect replacement for trans fats. Palm oil is semisolid at room temperature like coconut oil and doesn’t go bad very fast. Sustainable palm oil may be difficult to carry out, but it is still achievable. It’s extremely vital for the planet’s wellbeing.

Moral of the report, Everything is good in MODERATION. For example, If we utilize too much palm oil we will be risking our planet. This is because, in the race to produce palm oil, rainforests are cut down to make room for more palm oil trees. However, if we stop using palm oil it will be detrimental to our planet. This is because substitutes require more money, time and work. In conclusion, Palm oil should be used, but sustainably

Citations:

  1. “Palm Oil: Growth in Southeast Asia Comes With A High Price Tag.” Gro Intelligence, https://gro-intelligence.com/insights/articles/palm-oil-production-and-demand.
  2. Martinko, Katherine. “This Is How Palm Oil Is Made.” TreeHugger, Treehugger, 17 Apr. 2014, https://www.treehugger.com/slideshows/sustainable-agriculture/how-palm-oil-made/.
  3. “Social Impacts.” SPOTT.org, https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/social/.
  4. “Environmental Impacts.” SPOTT.org, https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/environmental/.
  5. Contributor, Guest. “McDonald’s Palm Oil Policy: Not ‘Lovin’ It’.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 27 June 2016, https://www.ecowatch.com/mcdonalds-palm-oil-policy-not-lovin-it-1881981357.html.
  6. “Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil?” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil.
  7. Schwartz, Jill. “Community Leaders Work to Protect Papua’s Forests and Fight Climate Change.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, 9 Nov. 2016, https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/community-leaders-work-to-protect-papua-s-forests-and-fight-climate-change.
  8. Sola, Sophia. “Palm Oil Substitutes.” EHow, Leaf Group, 24 Feb. 2010, https://www.ehow.com/list_6027284_palm-oil-substitutes.html.
  9. “Palm Oil.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil.
  10. Fassler, Joe. “Giving Up Palm Oil Might Actually Be Bad for the Environment.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/giving-up-palm-oil-might-actually-be-bad-environment-180958092/.



Samvita Amladi is a writer, editor and marketer for the Ascent. She is an activist who advocates for social equality. Samvita has been dancing professionally for 6 years. She paints frequently and has a love for animals. Samvita hopes to be a change-maker and wants to be a part of a developing world.

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