Climate

Palm Oil: The Most Destructive Or Versatile Vegetable Oil?

June 7, 2021
8 min

Although the world is fanatical about palm oil, palm oil production is also linked to large scale deforestation and habitat degradation. Today we’re asking: is sustainable palm oil production possible?

With palm oil found in 50% of packaged supermarket products, worldwide production of palm oil is increasing rapidly. In 1995 we produced only 15 million tonnes of palm oil, fast forward to 2019 and we’re producing over 65 million tonnes a year. With 86% of palm oil produced in Malaysia and Indonesia combined, the production of palm oil is unequally distributed across the globe. 


Palm oil is a hugely versatile vegetable oil.

Palm oil creates jobs in remote rural areas where alternative employment is scarce. A huge 4.5 million people across Indonesia and Malaysia earn a living from the palm oil industry, whilst a further 25 million people indirectly depend on palm oil production for their livelihoods. 

With so many job opportunities, palm oil production also contributes to poverty reduction with community-led schemes which promote rural development and enable tens of thousands of smallholder farmers to own land. 

4.5 million people across Indonesia and Malaysia earn a living from the palm oil industry

Uses for palm oil go further than cooking! 45% of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biodiesel, a renewable and non-toxic fuel. With a larger yield than other vegetable oils, palm oil is better suited as a biodiesel with the potential to produce 3.93 tonnes per hectare per year. For reference, this is over three times the yield for rapeseed oil.

However, this is still a land-intensive process. If the rest of the world was to follow Europe’s current thirst for palm oil biodiesel, a further 4,300,000 heaters of land in the tropics would be needed.

On the other hand, palm oil is destructive.

Palm oil is contributing to large scale deforestation. To meet the growing global demand for palm oil 5.5 million hectares of forest have been removed for palm oil plantations, to put this in perspective, this is an area roughly twice the size of Belgium.

Such large scale deforestation is also responsible for habitat destruction, threatening the habitat of many endangered species. Today, less than 1,500 Bornean Pygmy Elephants remain after palm oil plantations have encroached on their habitat.

Today, less than 1,500 Bornean Pygmy Elephants remain

Palm oil production has also been associated with land-grabbing, which is where individuals unfairly lose access to land they previously relied on. This is a common cause of conflict between local communities, government and indigenous peoples.

The destruction caused by palm oil is also a result of increased herbicide and pesticide use. In Indonesia, around 25 different pesticides are used with little regulation, with the potential to be harmful to palm oil workers and surrounding wildlife.

What about sustainable palm oil?

According to the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), the production of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil can minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on both the environment and the community. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to trace palm oil products back to see if they were produced ‘sustainably’.

Is there a future for palm oil?

It is clear that simply boycotting palm oil production would leave millions unemployed and forced into poverty, while simply replacing palm with another crop could further accelerate deforestation. It is therefore critical that any decisions should be enforced by those on the frontlines. 

Sources

The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change and Human Health. (2014). Workshop Summary.

Faizal & Ateeb. (2018). JMERD. Palm Oil Biodiesel in Malaysia.

Gatti et al. (2018). Science of The Total Environment. Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable 

Russell. (2018). Palm Oil: Economic and Environmental Impacts

Kadandale et al. (2019). Bulletin of the WHO. The palm oil industry 

Shanahan. (2019). Eco-Business. Palm oil: the pros and cons of a controversial commodity

Tullis. (2019). The Guardian. How the world got hooked on palm oil

Transport and Environment. (2020). Palm Oil.