Photograph by Pascal Maiter, Natioal Geographic

Palm oil is everywhere. It is an ingredient in thousands of everyday products around the world, such as: baked goods, hair products, cosmetics, fast food, and vehicle fuel (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013). Yet, it is a foreign product that most North Americans know nothing about. Chances are that if you looked in your refrigerator, medicine cabinet, or makeup vanity then you would find several products with palm oil as a listed ingredient. Unfortunately, it is the heavy reliance on this vegetable oil that raises concerns about environmental and social issues within the palm oil industry. Its unique qualities, versatility and relatively low cost have positioned it as the world’s most used vegetable oil (Stolton, 2020). Therefore, it has become crucial that we sharpen our knowledge about this issue and explore solutions to find a resolution. Although palm oil is economically beneficial for companies seeking its versatility and spoilage prevention, the harvesting and production has led to several environmental issues; such as; deforestation, loss of habitat for endangered or rare species, disruption of peatlands that negatively impact global warming, and increased risk of zoonotic diseases. In this article, I will define palm oil and its characteristics, explain the multitude of risks associated with palm oil production, present some solutions, and give a call to action for individuals seeking to make a difference.

What is it?

According to WWF (2020), It’s an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, the scientific name is Elaeis guineensis. Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit. Although palm oil is native to Africa, it is now being harvested in mass quantities from Indonesia and Malaysia. Those two countries produce over 85 percent of the global supply (WWF, 2020).

Why is it everywhere?

Palm oil is extremely versatile and offers different properties and functions which makes it so useful and so widely used. It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep products like peanut butter and Nutella spreadable (WWF, 2020). Also, it is resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life, and it is stable at high temperatures which helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture (WWF, 2020). Furthermore, palm oil is odourless and colourless so it does not alter the look or smell of food products. For example, other countries use palm oil as a cooking oil just like Americans use olive oil or castor oil. Unfortunately, palm oil is often disguised behind names that are unrecognizable. Here are a few (Schaeffer-Yildiz, 2020):

  • PKO — Palm Kernel Oil
  • PKO fractionations: Palm Kernel Stearin (PKs); Palm Kernel Olein (PKOo)
  • PHPKO — Partially hydrogenated Palm Oil
  • FP(K)O — Fractionated Palm Oil
  • OPKO — Organic Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palmitate — Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate
  • Palmate
  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates
  • Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Chemicals which contain palm oil
  • Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
  • Hydrated palm glycerides

How is it a risk?

Palm oil is really a victim of its own success. Its usefulness has led to increased demand which has translated into greater production (Stolton, 2020). High demand for the production of palm has led to deforestation, global warming, loss of habitat, and increased risk of zoonotic diseases.

A study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that palm oil plantations worldwide take up 40.6 million acres of land at the expense of forests and its inhabitants.The issue is both (1) how palm oil is being harvested, and (2) the amount of forest land being taken over. All of which can lead to deforestation, which is the clearing, destroying, or otherwise removal of trees through deliberate, natural or accidental means (Dictionary.com, 2020). In Borneo, farmers are clearing the land the quickest way possible, by burning trees down. The reason is to keep up with the ever climbing demand. In the process, peatlands–an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter–are being destroyed. Peatlands are vital to the reduction of global warming (UCS, 2020). Peat soils are found in swampy areas (i.e the Amazon and Borneo rainforest) with a high water table, and contain 18 to 24 more carbon than forests do (UCS, 2020). When burned the peat soils release carbon into the atmosphere. It is equivalent to 9 years worth of global fossil fuel use (van der Werf et al. 2008). Yikes!

If that is not reason enough to end this then consider how much oxygen we are losing. Clearly burning trees is extremely destructive. But people native to the surrounding areas are also paying the price. In June 2013, such fires in Indonesia became an international health concern (UCS, 2020). They caused smog, haze, and respiratory problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore. For more information read the CNN article titled, “Borneo is Burning.” Deforestation is not the only issue here. Burning down the rainforest for palm oil affects everyone including our furry friends.

As a result of deforestation, animals are losing their habitats and their lives. Endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino are fighting for survival but the battle is an uphill climb. Because of the palm oil industry these animals are dying from fires, smoke inhalation, other predators, and farmers. An article from the HuffPost reveals that palm oil plantations are expected to encroach even further on what little habitat there is left for many critically endangered species. And scientists believe many more species will soon be extinct in the wild (Calvert, 2017) as the global demand for palm oil increases (WWF, 2020).

Of all the endangered species residing in Borneo, the Orangutan–translates to “man of the forest” (CNN, 2019)– is the most at risk. According to Calvert (2017), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the Borneo orangutan was “critically endangered” because of shrinking forests in July 2016. Ever since several articles about orangutans being spotted in human-populated areas have surfaced. It is a tragedy because many of these creatures are being killed on the spot instead of sent to animal conservation centers. This segways into another glaring issue with deforestation, zoonotic diseases.

Where do animals go when their habitat is destroyed? Human-populated areas. It may not be on purpose but in order to survive animals are retreating into villages, towns, and possibly cities to seek shelter. It makes sense because humans are not destroying THEIR homes. The risk is that several animals are carriers for diseases. When animals come into contact with humans all it takes is a bite, scratch, or even a meal for an individual to contract a disease. Zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases, are infectious diseases transmitted from animal to human (Smith, 2020). Currently, the world is facing a pandemic called COVID-19, which is a zoonotic disease that scientists suspect was caused by bats. Imagine what other diseases could be lurking in the rainforests. As the palm oil plantations increase and the forest decreases there is a chance we may find out. Monkeys are known to carry several diseases. So, I spoke with Kent State University’s College of Public Health professor Tara Smith to gain more insights into this risk.

Dr. Tara Smith, Kent State University

“I suspect we are seeing a lot more outbreaks because of deforestation and because of that intersection of humans and animals populations,” Smith said. If you are interested in the connection between deforestation and zoonotic diseases please read the second part to this article called, “Palm Oil Vs Us: Deforestation and Zoonotic Diseases.” The second part of this article will include the full interview and be published on exclusively on Medium in 2021.

Solutions

Alone, there is a limit to what you can do. This issue is beyond any individual. A majority of the solutions presented here will require government intervention and company policy changes in order to implement significant changes, but here are a couple:

  • Produce more sustainably
  • Decreasing demand
  • Using alternative oils or different ingredients
  • Establishing policies and best practices that avoid conversion of forests
  • Government intervention with strict regulations
  • Education local palm oil farmers on the dangers of burning the forest
  • Assisting the government and law enforcement in Borneo to control unregulated forest burning

It can be overwhelming taking on an issue such as this. There is much to be done in order to turn the palm industry around and protect the environment, the animals, and ourselves in the process. Here is what you can do to get involved.

Call to action

It is not realistic to boycott all brands and companies that use palm oil because it is everywhere. First, I am calling for a nationwide boycott of brands that use high levels of palm oil. Second, buy locally sourced products and fresh produce from your local markets and vendors. Third, write a petition to your favorite company to only use palm oil that has been certified according to the criteria of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Together we can make a difference. All it takes in one decision to set change in motion.

I am a second-year Master’s student of Global Communication at Kent State University.