Palm oil is one of the most commonly used vegetable oils in the food and cosmetics industry and the most produced one in the world . It can be found in 50% of the products of a normal supermarket shelf ! Not only is it one of the main ingredients of our favorite chocolate spread, due to its features it is used in many other foods, in shampoos, detergents and even in fuel. Sadly, though it is highly efficient to grow, its use is controversial: Here’s why and what we all can do!
Why do we need so much palm oil?
Palm oil has a high energy content, which is why it can be used for bio fuels. In addition, is has useful properties for food and cosmetics: It gives texture, can hold colors or spices and improves cooking behavior. It is not only used to add fat to foods, but can also be processed to emulsifier or surfactants.
Emulsifiers are important to enable mixing of oils with water, which is essential for food texture and cosmetic’s touch and feel. Surfactants, or surface active agents, are the active ingredients of cleaning products, as these substances enable the removal of oil and fat from surfaces with water.
Instead of other vegetable oils which could be used to achieve the same thing, in most of these applications palm oil is chosen – because it is by far the cheapest option. Its production and processing costs e.g. in Malaysia are only a fraction of those of soybean, rapeseed or sunflower oils produced in USA, Canada or Europe . Therefore, it is the go-to option for big oil-consuming industries such as food and cosmetics.
And the demand for oils is only rising, also because of the usage of bio fuels: While it is certainly a good thing to replace fossil fuels, the production of Bio diesel is based on palm oil. This increases the demand even more, and quite significantly: Until recently, about 50 % of the palm oil imported into the European Union was used for bio fuel . Since 2020 this usage of palm oil has finally been banned in the EU , but is still practiced elsewhere.
Why is palm oil a problem for the environment?
Oil palms, which carry the fruits used to make palm oil, grow only in tropical environments where they compete for space with rain forests . Rain forests on the other hand are one of earth’s most important carbon stocks as well as home for an incredible biodiversity. Because of the increasing demand for palm oil, rain forests are being burned to clear the area and make room for palm oil plantations. This not only threatens a wide range of species populating rain forests (such as orangutans) – the deforestation also fuels climate change because of harmful pollution: Burning the palm trees that store carbon leads to massive Greenhouse gas emissions . This accelerates climate change much more than any bio fuel usage can recover:
We estimated it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion, depending on how the forest was cleared.F. Danielsen et al., Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate, .
The cited paper summarizes that reducing deforestation for palm oil production would be much more effective to mitigate climate change than all the bio fuel the resulting plantations could ever produce .
And not only rain forests are cleared to make palm oil: 20 % of palm oil plantations are planted in former peat swamp forests , which are drained for this purpose. Peatlands are home to highly endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger and Rhinoceros , which are thereby additionally threatened by humans. And similarly to the burning of rain forests, the drainage of peatlands also leads to massive CO2 emissions. This process is actually much worse than burning rain forests in terms of climate impact: Carbon balance for drained peatlands that is then used to make bio fuel would take 600 years !
Is avoiding palm oil the solution?
This question is really difficult to answer as it involved many aspects. If we focus on environmental aspects and climate impact, palm oil can actually be a good sustainable option – if it is done right. It can be produced with the best yield per land ratio compared to other vegetable oils: It yields more than four times the oil per area . The production of palm oil itself is also of lesser concern in terms of climate impact. So from the climate aspect, it is therefore wiser to plant palm trees instead of other crops for oil production. Planting alternatives such as soy beans or sunflowers would use up more than four times the amount of land, creating similar issues such as deforestation and Greenhouse gas emission.
Of course, there are other aspects that we should have in mind, and I would like to mention its social-economic ones. 85 % of the global palm oil production occurs in Indonesia and Malaysia , where it ensures the livelihood of many communities. It enables these communities to achieve several of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) such as zero hunger, no poverty, decent work and economic growth. Palm oil production is in such areas important for income generation and employment. But it also has high negative impacts such as conflicts, housing conditions and land grabbing .
Avoiding palm oil and a resulting lower demand will be problematic for such communities. And in addition, for many applications it would need to be substituted by another oil which cannot be produced with the same efficiency. So what can we as consumers do?
Is sustainable palm oil production possible?
The critics on palm oil is not new and many producers are tackling the issue. The so-called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the biggest and most prominent consortium that developed environmental and social standards to minimize the negative impacts of palm oil production. Certified producers can be recognized by this logo on their products:
Many big players from the food and personal care industry have signed to follow the RSPO guidelines and use RSPO certified oil. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also supports this project . Its 7 principles for sustainable palm oil production are the following :
- Behave ethically and transparently
- Operate legally and respect rights
- Optimize productivity, efficiency, positive impacts and resilience
- Respect community and human rights and deliver benefits
- Support smallholder inclusion
- Respect workers’ rights and conditions
- Protect, conserve and enhance ecosystems and the environment
Obviously, environmental aspects are only targeted with that last principle. Deforestation by fire is not allowed according to the detailed specification of principle 7 in . For High Conservation Values (HCVs) or High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests, deforestation by any other means is generally forbidden. For peatlands, a drainability assessment procedure has been implemented to prevent those lands from drying out and releasing high amounts of Greenhouse gases.
Therefore, the worst climate change impacts of palm oil production are avoided when produced under the RSPO label. But deforestation of unprotected forests is still allowed, which is the main point of criticism on labels such as the RSPO label . The social policies required by the standard in many cases do not go deeper than basic human rights, which should be self-evident. But often, they are not, so this can be called an improvement – even if it is only a small one.
While there sure is more than can be done to improve the sustainability of palm oil production and its social-economic influence, this label definitely represents an improvement over conventional palm oil production. And since avoiding palm oil will only shift the problem to a different corner of the world and might actually be worse for the environment due to lower efficiency in production, it is not such a bad trade-off. The standard is undergoing constant review and was accentuated just in 2018, so I am hoping it will also go deeper to ensure sustainable and fair conditions in the future.
How can I spot palm oil in the ingredients list?
Palm oil can be part of the ingredients list of food or personal care products under many different names. Here is a list of possible ingredients which describe palm oil or things made out of palm oil [data combined from 10,13]. The * marks all ingredients which could, but are not necessarily made of palm oil:
- Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (names with palmitate at the end are usually derived from palm oil)
- Elaeis Guineensis
- FP(K)O – Fractionated Palm Oil
- Glyceryl Stearate
- Hydrated palm glycerides
- OPKO – Organic Palm Kernel Oil
- Palm Kernel (Oil)
- Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate
- PHPKO – Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
- PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo)
- Stearic Acid
- Steareth -2
- Steareth -20
- Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
- Sodium dodecyl sulphate (SDS or NaDS)*
- Sodium laureth sulphate*
- Sodium lauryl sulphates*
- Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate*
- Vegetable Fat*
- Vegetable Oil*
We as consumers have it in our hands!
Palm oil is and in the near future will still be problematic. It is almost unavoidable in everyday life and because of our hunger for it, its production is hardly sustainable. But palm oil also is an enormously promising resource because it can be grown with an unmatched high efficiency. Especially in the past, this has led to crises both for the environment and for communities in the producing countries. But it is possible to make palm oil under conditions which are less harmful for the climate, nature in general and for the people – we just need to do it right. And to get all these big, oil-consuming companies to do it right, we as consumers need to be conscious of what we buy. If we limit our consumption and look out for certified, more-sustainable products, the producers will start changing eventually, because that is how market economy works. So let’s tackle this!