Palm oil is a cheap, versatile and very popular vegetable oil. However, its large-scale production has caused a devastating impact on wildlife and the environment. Adoption of sustainable production practices is urgently required as is mandatory labelling of products containing palm oil so that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is derived from the fruit (and kernels) of oil palm trees and is one of the most popular vegetable oils in the world, as it is relatively cheap and versatile with a long shelf-life. In 2020, Australia imported 110,000 tons of palm oil . Palm oil has a variety of uses and can be found in both edible and inedible items including shampoos, soaps, ice creams, bread, lipsticks and even biodiesel. Palm kernel expeller (PKE) meal is a by-product from the process of expelling oil from the palm kernels and is a key ingredient in many livestock feeds.
How does palm oil production impact the environment?
Palm oil has many advantages and uses, but the industrial scale production that is required to meet global demand is unsustainable and harmful to the environment and native wildlife. Oil palms only grow close to the equator, an area that includes vast expanses of tropical rainforests including in Asia, Africa and South America . These rainforests are rich in biodiversity, but are also located in countries with struggling economies. Indonesia is by far the largest producer of palm oil, followed by Malaysia . Together they produce over 80 per cent of the world’s palm oil, with around 63 million tons of palm oil produced in 2019/20 . To achieve this scale of production, rainforests are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. For example in Borneo, since 2000, almost 50% of the rainforest has been wiped out to make way for plantations . Clearing (usually through slash and burn methods) of tropical forests or burning of peat lands has a devastating impact on the environment including air pollution, soil and water pollution, soil erosion and emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere . Currently, it is estimated that plantations of palm oil cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface .
How does palm oil production impact wildlife?
Large-scale clearing of tropical rainforests has seen orangutans, elephants, tigers, rhinos and many other animals lose critical habitat and face extinction. At present, almost 80 per cent of orangutan habitat has been altered or lost  and scientists have predicted that orangutans will be extinct within a decade if sustainable methods of palm oil production are not implemented. Without their native habitat to provide food, orangutans may starve or otherwise eat young palm plants and, in doing so, be considered a pest and killed. Poachers may capture and smuggle baby orangutans to be sold as pets, killing the mother in the process. In Sumatra, the elephant population across the island has decreased significantly with currently less than 3,000 surviving members. A similar decline in the elephant population has been reported in Borneo, with a current estimate of fewer than 1,500 individuals. When elephant habitat is lost through land clearing and deforestation, hungry elephants seek food in palm oil plantations or villages and fields. This creates conflict between humans and elephants and the animals are often harmed or killed as a result; for example, by falling into snare traps or being poisoned. Tigers are also significantly affected; there are less than 400 Sumatran tigers remaining . In addition to habitat loss and the scarcity of the animals that would be their food source, tigers are subject to poaching with their body parts being sold in the Chinese medicine trade .
Should we stop producing palm oil?
Palm oil production has caused a significant negative impact on the environment, the native animal habitat and the welfare of those animals. Despite this, stopping production doesn’t seem feasible. Palm oil is one of the most efficient vegetable oils to produce. Palm trees require half the size of land to produce a given amount of oil compared to other vegetable oils such as soybean oil. Furthermore, the biggest producers of palm oil are countries that are highly reliant on the income generated from its production. Given this, it is imperative that more sustainable means of palm oil production are adopted.
What can consumers do?
Responsible consumers can help by choosing brands that use 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. In 2004, a certification scheme named Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created to promote the use of sustainable palm oil . This certification scheme consists of eight principles and around 40 criteria that growers need to fulfil in order to be approved as a sustainable palm oil producer. Of course, for the scheme to be robust, stringent auditing is required to be maintained, any non-compliances quickly addressed, and criteria regularly reviewed and improved. Currently, around 20% of the world’s palm oil meets the RSPO’s environmental and social criteria that aim to protect vulnerable forests and endangered species. Consumers concerned about the source of palm oil can visit the WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard website to check which products or brands use RSPO certified palm oil.
Livestock producers sourcing animal feed can help by asking their feed suppliers if they source RSPO (or similar) certified KPE meal.
Palm oil is often labelled as ‘vegetable oil’ rather than clearly stating ‘palm oil’. Hence, consumers might not know what they are really buying. Zoos Victoria has been campaigning to get labelling laws changed in Australia so that palm oil is clearly labelled on products . This will help increase public awareness and, in turn, put pressure on manufacturers to source sustainable palm oil and will facilitate informed purchasing decisions. You can support the Zoos Victoria campaign to introduce mandatory labelling laws at the Don’t Palm Us Off website.