Why is Palm Oil So Controversial?

Palm oil has been sweeping the globe for decades now making its way into just about every household item. But what is palm oil? Palm oil is the vegetable oil that is pressed from the fruit and seed of the Elaeis guineensis (oil palm tree), which are local to areas of West Africa (Boucher et al., 2011). This plant was brought from Africa to South-East Asia as an ornamental crop over a hundred years ago, and since then it has been found to be an invaluable product but has offered many detrimental environmental impacts to our planet.

The All-in-one Solution

Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of the global supply but there are 42 other countries that also produce palm oil. This liquid gold, so to speak, is now in over 50% of our packaged products and is found in things like doughnuts, pizzas, shampoo, lipstick, and even animal feed. This product was found to be so versatile as it is odourless and flavourless, as well as semi-solid at room temperature. These characteristics allowed it to be added to spreadable products like margarine, and this acted as palm oil’s big debut in the middle of the 20th century. Basically, this oil was suggested to do almost everything, including offering a healthier alternative to butter (which was later disproved), making soap sudsier, making crispy things crispier, and even keeping ice cream from melting. At the end of the 25-year lifespan of the trees, the trunks and fronds could even be made into plywood. This magical crop is also highly efficient and produces more oil per capita than other vegetable oil crops using the same amount of land. Palm oil supplies over 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand while using less than 6% of the total land used to produce vegetable oil globally. A comparison in palm oil yield to other vegetable oils can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Palm Oil Yield Per Capita
Source: WWF

As of now, there are over 150 countries with 3 billion people who use products containing palm oil daily averaging about 8kg of personal consumption annually.

As the discovery of this plant persists and investment ensues, production rates have increased. Between 1995 and 2015, its annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes, and by 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes. These rapid growth trends can be seen in Figure 2 which also outlines palm oil harvest per hectare in the top 4 largest producer countries. The majority of this production comes from Malaysia which makes up 85% of the oil palm supply and this accounts for 13.7% of Malaysia’s gross national income.

Figure 2: Growth in area for palm oil harvested
Source: Boucher et al., 2011

The Not-so Perfect Palm Oil!

Although palm oil presents itself as this secret elixir to all the world’s problems, the production of this crop is far from perfect. The production of the oil palm tree is one of the leading causes of deforestation globally due to the demand to create more plantations which contribute to 300,000 hectares of deforestation in Indonesia every year (Boucher et al., 2011). Given that these trees are essentially replacing other trees, and that trees absorb carbon and produce oxygen, palm oil plantations do not immediately invoke concern. But the issue is that, even at full growth at about 25 years, palm oil trees have less above-ground biomass (leaves, roots, trunk, fruit) compared to the flora they are replacing and thus reducing their capacity as a carbon sink (Boucher et al., 2011).  These forests are not only being clear-cut but many are also subject to burning as it is often a faster and cheaper way to clear the land. This then pollutes the air with carbon dioxide and directly impacts local biodiversity and actively threatens wildlife. Animals in these areas are being pushed to live in tight spaces and isolated fragments of land, and this has caused species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and the Sumatran rhino to become endangered species

The disrupted land is also reversing the effects of the carbon sink by causing the exposure of these carbon-rich peat soils which are exponentially releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere and contributing to the active effects of climate change. The conversion of forested areas into palm oil plantations releases 52-245 metric tons of carbon per hectare during the first year, and 169-723 metric tons of carbon per hectare over the 25-year lifespan (Boucher et al., 2011). Not only are these plantations releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, they also produce 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil produced, which pollutes groundwater and local waterways, and impacts the health of local biodiversity and people who rely on these waterways. These plantations not only negatively affect the environment but also have direct effects on the local human population by exposing them to health risks, and other issues such as workers’ exploitation and child labor.

Figure 3: A deforested oil palm plantation in Papua, Indonesia
Source: Greenpeace

To Boycott or not to Boycott?

If avoiding palm oil is your goal, well it’s near impossible. With so many different names for it in the ingredient list and the sheer quantity of products that contain it, you would have to have a level of consumer consciousness like no other. Some studies have done the work for you and found certain brands and products which are palm oil free, but they, unfortunately, do not exist on a global scale yet. Boycotting is not only impractical but can also be very detrimental to the millions of small farmers whose livelihood depends on the production of palm oil. Instead of boycotting, you could instead choose to look out for certifications/labels on your products that attest that the palm oil used in these products was ethically and sustainably sourced. An example of such certifications is the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label seen in Figure 4

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 and set out to enforce policies to remove deforestation and land conversion, as well as human rights abuses from every level of their supply chain, and to remain transparent about their products. The UK is setting a global example and has recognized the palm oil problem that they are a part of and set out to make 100% of their imported palm oil to be sustainably sourced. As of 2019, 70% of their imported palm oil has been sustainably sourced and is only increasing.

Figure 4: RSPO certification label – sustainably sourced palm oil
Source: RSPO

Enhancing the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil

Striving to make nations source sustainable palm oil is part of the solution. We need to hold these problematic plantations accountable. Some plantations have already recognized the harm that their work does and instead of dropping it, they have found ways to make their practices more sustainable by reducing their emissions and waste drastically. 

Another solution relates to the choice of locations for new plantations. Utilizing already clear spaces like grasslands eliminates the astronomical amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere due to developing on lands of peat soil. Using these grasslands is also estimated to double palm oil output over the span of 10 years (Boucher et al., 2011). 

The recycling of mill effluent instead of dumping, and converting it into energy has been experimented with at some plantations, in order to give this waste a second life. This does not only reduce the environmental impact of these plantations but also provides a stable income for these workers even when oil palm prices are down. 

The use of mature plants when they are at the end of their life and creating materials such as plywood is another way some of these plantations have found ways to recycle their waste. 

There is also new technology in the works to increase the yield of these individual oil palm plants to ensure maximum production and thus limit the need to engage in expanding and more deforestation. Regular trees often produce six or seven tonnes of oil per hectare but there are some plants that produce almost double this yield and so the Malaysian Palm Oil Board is investing in duplicating these crops to increase yields and decrease the need for excess space and land. These are tremendous steps being made by some of these plantations however, it is difficult to get everyone in the industry on board with these changes. 

To conclude, buying locally and ensuring sustainable sourcing are the biggest changes we can all engage in right now.


Saxon, E., Roquemore, S., Boucher, D., Elias, P., Lininger, K., & May-Tobin, C. 

(2011). Palm Oil. In The Root of the Problem: WHAT’S DRIVING TROPICAL DEFORESTATION TODAY? (pp. 51–63). Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep00075.12

Sarah Lawless
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