Is palm oil bad for the environment? This question has long been a controversial topic in the world of environmental conservation.
On one hand, palm oil is an essential ingredient in countless consumer products, from food to cosmetics to biofuels. On the other hand, the production of palm oil has been linked to deforestation, habitat destruction, and climate change.
In this article, we will dive deeper into this green debate surrounding palm oil. Let’s explore how palm oil affects the environment and the recent developments that suggest it might not be as bad as it once was.
- What Is Palm Oil?
- Palm Oil Production
- How Does Palm Oil Affect the Environment?
- Speeding Up Global Warming
- Soil Degradation
- Loss Of Biodiversity
- Socio-Economic And Livelihood Loss
- Yet…Palm Oil Is Not That Bad Anymore
- The Role Of The RSPO
- Commitment From Major Companies
- Government Regulations
- Positive Trends In Palm Oil Sustainability
- The Bottom Line: Is Palm Oil Bad For The Environment?
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil, extracted from the fruits of the palm oil tree (Elaeis Guineensis), is an essential ingredient in today’s global market. These plants are mainly found in regions near the equator, where they thrive in warm temperatures of 24 to 32 degrees Celsius, plenty of sunshine, and steady rainfall all year round. Their preference for tropical conditions makes them a strong presence in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which are major palm oil producers.
Palm oil is often called “liquid gold” because it’s super useful and important for the economy. It’s the most commonly used vegetable oil worldwide and can be found in about 60% of all packaged products in supermarkets all over the world. People use it a lot not only because it’s cheap, but also because it has special qualities that make it work well in lots of different things.
Palm oil is mainly used for cooking in developing countries, but it has many other uses beyond the kitchen. It’s an important ingredient in various products like processed foods, detergents, cosmetics, and even biofuels. Surprisingly, in the United States, where it’s not a big part of the average diet, over half of all packaged products have palm oil in them.
Palm Oil Production
Palm oil production begins when oil palm trees are around three to four years old and start producing fruit bunches. These fruit bunches are harvested year-round, with each bunch containing hundreds of palm fruits, roughly the size of large olives. These bunches are then transported to processing facilities where the oil is extracted. Each palm fruit contains approximately 30-35% palm oil, making it a highly efficient source of vegetable oil. The rest of the fruit is used for various purposes, such as animal feed or biofuel.
In the 2021/22 marketing year, global production reached a staggering 73.8 million metric tons, up from around 73 million tonnes the previous year. This upward trend has led to the expansion of palm oil plantations across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
But, this growth has a significant impact on the environment. A lot of the land turned into palm oil farms was once tropical forest, which is important for biodiversity and carbon retention. The shift to palm oil cultivation in these forests has raised concerns about the loss of habitat for endangered species and the loss of indigenous communities of their traditional lifestyles.
How Does Palm Oil Affect the Environment?
The environmental impact of palm oil production is a complex issue with far-reaching consequences. Why is palm oil bad for the environment, exactly? The reasons are discussed below.
One of the most significant environmental issues associated with palm oil production is deforestation. Palm oil has been, and continues to be, a major driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. This trend is particularly prevalent in regions where palm oil is grown, including Indonesia, Papua, Malaysia, and New Guinea.
Some alarming palm oil deforestation facts:
- It is estimated that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared globally every hour to make room for palm plantations.
- According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), palm oil has contributed to an estimated 5% of tropical deforestation in tropical areas. When considering global deforestation, palm oil’s contribution rises to 2.3% of global deforestation, as reported by the European Commission. Some of this expansion has occurred on land that was previously used for growing other crops like coffee or rubber.
The growing demand for palm oil has led to the expansion of palm oil plantations, which, in turn, has resulted in the destruction of tropical forests to make way for these new plantations. The impact of deforestation goes beyond the immediate loss of trees.
Forests play a vital role in carbon sequestration, which helps mitigate the effects of climate change. The conversion of these forests into palm oil plantations not only releases stored carbon into the atmosphere but also reduces the planet’s capacity to absorb future emissions.
Speeding Up Global Warming
Forests are really important for fighting climate change. They work like a sponge for carbon, soaking it up and keeping it stored in trees and soil. This helps to lower the amount of heat-trapping gases in the air. But when forests are chopped down to grow palm oil, all that stored carbon is let loose into the atmosphere. This makes global warming worse by adding more greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, to our atmosphere.
Cutting down forests to make room for palm oil farms is a big issue because it destroys living plants. This not only reduces the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon naturally but also adds more carbon into the air. This leads to serious problems like making climate change worse and causing more extreme weather events more often.
While deforestation is widely recognized as a major concern, the impact of palm oil cultivation on soil quality is often overlooked. The process of growing palm oil trees often involves clearing existing flora, which can lead to soil erosion.
Moreover, the younger palm oil trees tend to absorb a significant amount of nutrients from the soil, degrading its quality over time. This depletion of nutrients leaves less for other plant species, exacerbating the problem of soil degradation.
The tight arrangement of palm oil trees, meant to use space efficiently, makes soil problems worse. Because there aren’t enough nutrients for all the trees, farmers use a lot of fertilizers and pesticides to make them grow quickly and stay healthy. Sadly, all these chemicals make the soil even worse for the plants and animals that were already there.
Soil erosion and reduced soil quality have significant effects, affecting both the environment and the lives of nearby communities relying on palm oil plantations. These communities used to depend on the land for food and wood, but now they face dwindling resources and risks to their livelihoods.
Large-scale farming of crops such as palm oil causes pollution in the soil and water nearby. When forests are cut down, often using fire, it releases a lot of smoke and tiny particles into the air, which adds to air pollution. This doesn’t just harm the air quality in the area but also has serious consequences for the Earth’s climate.
Palm oil farming can harm nearby environments by causing pollution. This pollution happens when chemicals from farming activities, like clearing land for plantations, seep into the soil and flow off into surrounding areas. Also, the waste from palm oil mills, where the fruit is processed, can pollute nearby water sources.
Studies have revealed that streams that drain through palm oil plantations undergo physical, biochemical, and hydrological alterations different from those in forested areas. These changes can have detrimental effects on aquatic life, as well as on the communities that rely on these water bodies for their livelihoods.
Additionally, when palm oil plantations cause areas to flood and create drainage canals, it can lead to the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane is created by special bacteria that live in waterlogged, oxygen-deprived peat layers. These bacteria turn carbon compounds into methane gas. In areas with more oxygen, the methane turns into carbon dioxide, which helps balance carbon levels. Normally, tropical forest peat doesn’t produce much methane, but altering the land for palm oil plantations can increase soil temperatures and boost methane production.
Loss Of Biodiversity
The rapid development of palm oil plantations is harming nature and wildlife. This is bad news for animals like birds, elephants, orangutans, and tigers, which are now at risk in countries that make palm oil.
Deforestation and habitat loss are very harmful to these at-risk species. When their natural homes are destroyed to create palm oil plantations, they have less and less space to live and flourish. This not only leads to a loss of different types of plants and animals, which is sad on its own, but it also upsets the delicate balance of ecosystems, causing problems for many other species.
Changing forests into palm oil plantations can make fires more likely, which is bad for animals and plants. Also, when people use chemicals like herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers on palm oil farms, these chemicals can get into nearby water sources. This harms the underwater plants and animals and the ecosystems they’re a part of. Losing biodiversity isn’t just a problem in one place; it affects the whole world by messing up the balance of nature and hurting the environment everywhere.
Socio-Economic And Livelihood Loss
Palm oil is indeed beneficial for local economies, so why is palm oil bad in this aspect? That’s because palm oil production can harm indigenous societies in the long run.
Many of these communities depend on the forests, which are often turned into palm oil plantations, for their survival and livelihoods. When these lands change, it can disrupt food production, which in turn affects food prices and creates economic instability in already vulnerable communities.
Additionally, the growth of palm oil farming is closely connected to global warming, which harms crop production. Climate change causes higher temperatures and more flooding, which can erode nutrient-rich soil, leading to lower crop output. This forces farmers to use expensive fertilizers to make up for the poor soil quality, making it harder for them to make a profit.
Another worrisome issue with palm oil production is the increasing number of communities being forced to leave their homes. As big multinational companies look for more land to grow palm trees, there have been more cases of illegal land seizures and people being made to move against their will. These actions not only make communities leave their homes but also disturb the way of life they’ve followed for generations.
Yet…Palm Oil Is Not That Bad Anymore
Palm oil is bad for the environment, that’s true. However, despite the undeniable negative impact of palm oil on the environment and communities, there is still a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In recent years, many efforts have been made to solve these problems and make palm oil production more sustainable.
The Role Of The RSPO
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004, is an important step towards making the palm oil industry more sustainable. It involves multiple participants, such as palm oil producers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and consumers. All parties working together to promote the production and sourcing of responsible palm oil.
RSPO has established guidelines to encourage growers to adopt better practices, including:
- Avoiding deforestation and the conversion of natural ecosystems in their supply chains.
- Using sustainable palm oil that has been certified by RSPO in their operations worldwide.
- Making sure that palm oil sourcing is transparent, so companies can track where it comes from and how it’s produced.
Commitment From Major Companies
In 2013, Wilmar, one of the world’s largest palm oil companies, made a groundbreaking commitment to limit deforestation in its supply chain. This move set a precedent for other major players in the industry, who followed suit. This commitment, along with growing consumer awareness and pressure, has driven change in the industry.
Some countries that produce palm oil, such as Indonesia, have started doing things to reduce the harm to the environment from palm oil production. Indonesia stopped giving out new permits for palm oil projects in important places like primary forests and peatlands. They understand that protecting these ecosystems is important. Also, new technology, like satellite pictures, makes it simpler to watch for deforestation and make palm oil companies responsible for their actions.
Positive Trends In Palm Oil Sustainability
These efforts are making a difference, and recent data proves it. In 2021, deforestation linked to palm oil in Indonesia hit its lowest point in more than two decades, although it experienced a slight increase in 2022. Similarly, Malaysia, another major palm oil producer, has also seen a positive trend in reducing deforestation. These developments show that companies are making a conscious effort to minimize their impact on the environment.
The Bottom Line: Is Palm Oil Bad For The Environment?
So, is palm oil bad for the environment? Yes, it is. The historical and ongoing impacts of palm oil production on the environment and communities cannot be denied. Deforestation, carbon emissions and habitat destruction are real and urgent issues related to this industry.
Yet amid these far-reaching negative consequences, sustainable palm oil production has emerged as a key part of the solution. While it may be tempting to avoid palm oil altogether, this approach is not without its drawbacks. Boycotting palm oil and substituting it with any other vegetable oil crop can lead to even further environmental and social harm.
The best thing you can do as a buyer is to support sustainable palm oil or its alternatives. When you support sustainable palm oil, you’re helping to preserve our planet’s precious ecosystems and protect the rights of those affected by palm oil production. It’s not easy, but with the right choices, we can work towards a more sustainable future.