Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil made from the fruit of the Elaeis Guineensis tree, a palm tree native to parts of Africa.
There’s a good chance that you’ve eaten palm oil or used products made with it. It’s used for cooking and as an ingredient in foods like crackers, butter substitutes, and frozen foods, as well as products like soap, shampoo, makeup, and even biofuel (1).
However, the methods used to produce palm oil are highly unsustainable and wreak havoc on the environment of Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, the palm oil industry claims that this crop plays a significant role in the food system and provides jobs in the countries where it’s grown.
As a dietitian concerned with the future of our global food system, I want to take an in-depth look at palm oil’s environmental impact, as it’s clear that our current use of palm oil isn’t sustainable long term.
This article reviews some pressing sustainability issues with palm oil and explores a few ways that you can advocate for better production practices.
Many of us don’t realize just how common palm oil is. In 2021, the world produced more than 167 million pounds (75.7 million kg) of it (2).
This oil rose in popularity during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries and again over the past few decades as manufacturers began looking for versatile ingredients to replace trans fats in processed foods.
Palm oil not only acts as a preservative but also remains stable under high temperatures and has a mild flavor and smooth texture. Plus, growing and harvesting it is cost-effective.
As the food industry realized palm oil’s perks, its use increased greatly during the 1970s and 1980s. This oil is now used in as many as half of all consumer goods (
Palm oil’s use has grown exponentially over the past few decades. It’s hidden in many more products and foods than we tend to realize due to its versatile uses and effectiveness as a high volume crop.
Just a few counties — mainly Indonesia and Malaysia — produce nearly 85% of the planet’s palm oil (2).
Parts of Southeastern Asia, Africa, and Latin America where palm oil is grown are most affected by its production. Even so, because its impacts on the environment are so significant, the final toll of palm oil production may be much further reaching (
Here are some of the most notable environmental concerns involving palm oil:
- Deforestation. In some parts of Asia, palm oil is estimated to cause nearly half of all deforestation. Clear-cutting forests for agriculture releases greenhouse gases, leads to the destruction of habits, and threatens biodiversity (
5, 6, 7, 8).
- Pollution. The large-scale production of an agricultural commodity like palm oil inevitably leads to runoff and pollution of nearby soil and waterways. Deforestation to make way for palm oil crops is also a major source of air pollution (
4, 9, 10).
- Loss of biodiversity. As a result of deforestation and habitat loss, many bird, elephant, orangutan, and tiger populations are becoming increasingly threatened or endangered in countries that produce palm oil (
8, 11, 12, 13).
- Contributes to global warming. Clear-cutting forests to establish palm oil plantations contributes to global warming by releasing excessive amounts of greenhouse gases into the air (
- Unmitigated growth and production. Palm oil demand is projected to keep rising over the next 10 years. Production could grow by 100% or more in some areas, only worsening its environmental toll (
Paradoxically, palm oil production is threatened by global warming, too. Not only do some palm varieties grow poorly in warmer temperatures, but flooding from rising sea levels also threatens palm-oil-producing countries like Indonesia (
The palm oil industry is responsible for huge amounts of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution. As the industry continues to grow, these issues may only intensify.
Palm oil production is lightly regulated — and sometimes not regulated at all. This situation gives rise to tensions between corporate interests and consumers or environmental groups demanding changes to how palm oil is made.
Regulating palm oil may lead to higher prices for consumer goods, lower wages, and a loss of work for people who grow palm oil. Yet, excessive carbon emissions, such as those released by deforestation, are a threat to society as we know it (
These are just a few issues to consider when it comes to regulating palm oil.
Researchers have proposed reducing the industry’s emissions by only using land that has already been forested for palm plantations, protecting the most carbon-rich lands like peat forests, and better managing carbon-sensitive areas (
A few key players
In the private sector, organizations like the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA) are making commitments against deforestation, land exploitation, and peat forest development. Grocery stores like Iceland Foods have reformulated store-brand items to remove palm oil (7).
In some instances, governments have stepped in.
The 2015 Amsterdam Declaration aimed to phase out all palm oil that isn’t certified sustainable by 2020. The partnership now includes nine countries, including France and the United Kingdom, and has expanded its commitment to eliminating agricultural deforestation (
Despite these efforts, enforcement is challenging due to corporate influence and a lack of resources.
For example, efforts like the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) were less successful. Advertised as a commitment to stop deforestation and the development of peat forests, the IPOP was signed by Indonesia’s largest palm oil exporters in 2014 (23).
The initiative fell apart just a few years later due to a lack of organization and external pressure from the industry. Some activists criticized the effort as little more than a political advertising stunt that only increased red tape around sustainability efforts.
Currently, no one regulatory body oversees global palm oil production. Some nations have committed to using only sustainable palm oil, while private groups are advocating for a halt to deforestation and the development of carbon-rich lands.
It’s a personal choice whether you decide to avoid palm oil or try to only use palm oils that have been sustainably and ethically sourced.
Many of the controversies surrounding palm oil involve:
- the environment
- climate change
- sustainable agriculture
- Indigenous people’s right to manage their land
- human rights
- workers’ right
- child labor laws
It’s clear that palm oil production in its current form isn’t sustainable long term.
Furthermore, organizations like Amnesty International, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Human Rights Watch have accused the palm oil industry of using child labor, failing to protect the lands of Indigenous people, and other human rights abuses.
Still, simply replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils may not be a viable option (
That’s because other vegetable oil crops would likely use even more resources — and thus contribute more to climate change — than palm oil does, as palm crops grow efficiently and have a significantly higher output than other oil-producing plants.
What if it’s grown responsibly?
If palm oil were produced ethically and sustainably, it could offer numerous benefits. Aside from being an effective cooking oil, it works well as a soap and fuel. Plus, people have been cooking with palm oil in Africa for thousands of years (1,
Palm oil also has nutritional benefits because it contains healthy fats, numerous antioxidants, and vitamins A and E. Unrefined palm oil, also called red palm oil, may contain the most amount of nutrients since it’s cold pressed rather than heated during processing (
Palm oil is rich in healthy fats, some vitamins, and antioxidants. Though it can be part of a healthy diet, some people choose to limit it or use only sustainably grown palm oil due to the industry’s environmental and human rights abuses.
You can advocate against the harmful effects of palm oil in the following ways.
1. Familiarize yourself with the names of palm oil
Knowing how to spot palm oil on an ingredient list is essential to understanding how common it is and learning where it might be hiding in your own diet, hygiene, or wellness routine.
It’s also key if you’ve decided to cut back your use of palm oil.
Some of the most common ingredients derived from palm oil are:
- sodium laureth sulfate (sometimes contains palm oil)
- sodium lauryl sulfate (sometimes contains palm oil)
- glyceryl stearate
- stearic acid
- vegetable oil (sometimes contains palm oil)
2. Know your certifications
Purchasing palm oil that has been certified sustainable by an accrediting body lets industry leaders know that consumers are concerned about these issues.
Some certifications may be designated by an icon on product labels. A few of the most common include:
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Palm oil producers must verify that their production processes meet the sustainability criteria set out by the RSPO.
- International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC). Certified organizations must commit to halting deforestation, protecting soil and water, and safeguarding human and workers’ rights.
- The Rainforest Alliance. Farms must meet standards in various areas of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
Malaysia and Indonesia each have government-led certification programs.
- The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification. The national certification of Malaysia reviews palm oil processing plants for certain management and supply chain standards.
- The Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) Certification. This effort by the Indonesian government certifies sustainable growers in the country.
Still, environmental advocates have questioned the credibility of such programs due to the influence of the palm oil industry (
3. Request transparency from the palm oil industry
Don’t be afraid to reach out directly to palm oil producers, distributors, and companies that use palm oil in their products. Ask key players in the industry about their practices and encourage them to move toward sustainable palm oil.
By signing online petitions, sending emails, or joining protests, you can encourage companies that rely on palm oil to adopt sustainability principles.
4. Keep up the pressure
Policies to promote sustainable palm oil
Government policy can be wielded to stop deforestation and promote sustainable palm oil. Specific policies that would lessen palm oil’s environmental impact include:
- Bans on deforestation. Creating national parks, limiting clearcutting practices, and banning deforestation in fragile areas would protect rainforests and critical ecosystems.
- Stricter trade criteria. Countries could decide to only import palm oil and palm oil products grown in a sustainable manner.
- Land use regulation. Governments could mandate that palm plantations only be developed on land that has already been forested for several years.
Sustainability promises and certifications are a step in the right direction, but the palm oil industry needs a systematic overhaul to remain viable into the future.
Standing up to a major industry like the palm oil lobby might feel like a daunting task, but you won’t be alone. When ordinary citizens band together for a cause they’re passionate about, they can achieve extraordinary things.
Some ways to campaign for change around palm oil include:
- Signing petitions. Environmental groups like Greenpeace organize online petitions to stop the harmful impacts of palm oil.
- Joining protests. You may be able to find a community group that helps raise awareness of palm oil’s effects. Other ways to advocate include avoiding palm oil or lobbying elected officials on its issues.
- Spreading the word. Many people are still unaware of the harmful effects palm oil has on communities and the environment. You can be an advocate for change by helping educate others on palm oil.
You can advocate for sustainable palm oil by limiting how much you use it, buying products that are certified sustainable, requesting transparency from the palm oil industry, and putting pressure on its main players to find sustainable alternatives.
Palm oil is abundant in the food system and common household products.
However, its environmental impact is profound. Although certain concrete steps, such as halting deforestation and growing palm only on previously forested lands, could reduce palm oil’s environmental impacts, the palm oil industry has so far resisted these changes.
Thus, if you’re worried about the impact palm oil is having on the world around you, you can take action by limiting your palm oil usage and purchasing products that are certified as sustainable.
Just one thing
Try this today: Scan the foods in your pantry, the soaps on your shelves, and the cosmetics in your bag to locate hidden sources of palm oil in your home. Don’t forget to look for ingredients like palmate, glyceryl, stearate, and sodium lauryl sulfate.