The conversion of tropical forests to palm oil plantations devastates ecosystems, causing erosion, pollution, and the loss of critical habitat for endangered species. The destruction of tropical forests must end. Palm oil must be produced regeneratively; governments and corporations need to be held accountable for their roles; and consumers must use the product responsibly.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, found in a variety of processed foods, and body care products. It is a source of biofuel and animal feed. Palm oil plantations destroy rainforests and imperil endangered species, including orangutans, rhinos, gibbons, and tigers. The destruction is expanding. The loss of rainforests damages a global sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. Smoke from fires generates air pollution and greenhouse gases. Chemicals in the milling process poison waterways. Labor conditions are poor and the rights of Indigenous communities are abused. Criticism of the industry has led to violent reprisals. Reforms are necessary, led by consumers and governments. The demand for palm oil must be reduced. Degraded lands need to be restored and fragmented wildlife habitats reconnected.
Learn why palm oil production is so destructive to tropical forests, and what its consequences are. Native to west Africa, palm oil trees grow in wet tropical environments. They are highly productive and live up to thirty years. Palm fruit is versatile. It produces cooking oil. It is used in processed foods as an additive. Nearly half of the world’s population consumes palm oil as part of their diet. Palm oil’s fat content can reach 40 percent and is linked to cardiovascular disease. Palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and habitat destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, contributing to climate change. Palm tree plantations are ruining some of the most biologically diverse places on earth. See Tropical Forests Nexus and Degraded Land Restoration Nexus.
- Palm oil is found in 50 percent of consumer products, including many organic ones, and is used in industrial processes.
- Palm oil production involves clearing forest mechanically, burning downed trees and debris, draining carbon-rich peat lands, and planting trees as a monoculture. Palm kernels are processed in a mill to generate the oil.
- Palm oil devastates wildlife habitat. A site of significant destruction is Borneo, home to one of the world’s most biological diverse rainforests. A planned highway by the Indonesian government will pierce the heart of Borneo, opening the rainforest for palm oil plantations on ancestral Dayak land. Local Indigenous leaders on Borneo have protested.
- Palm oil is cheap to produce and cheap to process into additives. Its low cost contributes to its dominance in the marketplace.
- When the scientific consensus against trans fat emerged in the 1990s, palm oil was embraced as a preferred alternative. It replaced animal fat in many household products, including soap and shampoo. As a result, between 1995 and 2015, annual production of palm oil quadrupled.
- Production is expanding into Africa, Latin America, and the Amazon basin.
- More than half of the global demand for palm oil comes from Asia.
- The palm oil industry is opaque. On-the-ground monitoring is infrequent. Product traceability often only goes back to palm oil mills, not the farms. Enforcement of laws and regulations to curtail environmental damage is spotty or nonexistent.
- The industry is powerful and intimidating. Its lobbying and public relations tactics have been compared to the tobacco industry.
- Palm oil trees can grow in marginal soils and on hillslopes, often leading to soil erosion, especially when forests are being cleared.
- Palm oil plantations sometimes are established in the wake of industrial logging activities, linking the oil to wood products created by deforestation.
- Many tropical forest wildlife species cannot survive in open agroforests, or monoculture plantations.
- Discharge from a palm oil mill can cause freshwater pollution that affects people and wildlife downstream.
- New roads and settlements encourage the poaching of wildlife and birds, including the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbill.
- Palm oil production was a major cause of record fires in Indonesia in 2019, causing a variety of serious environmental impacts.
- Palm oil production sometimes involves child labor.
- Palm oil can be used as a biofuel, but when the environmental damage caused by converting tropical forest to a palm oil plantation is factored in, palm oil biodiesel generates more greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent amount of fossil fuel.
- In 2019, the European Union decided to phase out the use of palm oil in transportation by 2030, no longer considering it to be a renewable fuel source.
- Historically, palm oil has a close relationship with European colonialism and economic imperialism.
Join a campaign that targets corporations and governments involved in destructive palm oil production and use. Palm oil production operated out of the public eye for years. However, campaigns by local activists, conservation organizations, and governments shined spotlights on the damage caused by the palm oil industry. In 2004, a coalition of businesses formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to certify less destructive practices. In 2018, the group was pressured again to toughen its standards. International pressure has been brought to bear on nations to enforce their laws. Pressure is building on the Indonesian government to extend a ban on new palm oil plantations. (See Key Players below.) Campaigns include:
- Here is Rainforest Action Network’s anti-deforestation campaign. Here is RAN’s Take Action campaign. Here is RAN’s blog about helping Indigenous peoples in Indonesia.
- Palm Oil Resistance is a campaign of the Orangutan Project.
- World Wildlife Fund’s Voice for the Planet is calling for urgent action.
- Greenpeace/Indonesian Palm Oil and Peatlands campaign.
- Greenpeace’s campaign to support Indigenous peoples.
- Here is a list of rainforest protection petitions in various languages.
- A Girl Scout troop boycotted selling cookies over palm oil use.
Demand accountability and sustainability in retail palm oil products. Although the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides a seal that tells buyers whether products have met its standards, a recent analysis has cast doubt on whether the standards are actually meaningful. There are other certification standards, including the International Palm Oil Free Trademark and one by the Orangutan Alliance. The Palm Oil Innovation Group is a multistakeholder group of NGOs and companies.
- Food brands are failing to live up to promises to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains and products.
- Shoppers should study the ingredient list on their favorite food or household product to determine if it contains palm oil.
- Scorecards on companies are available from the Rainforest Action Network, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wildlife Fund.
- Here is a report (2020) by World Wildlife Fund that compares the record of companies against their pledges to buy responsibly produced palm oil.
- Here is a similar report from Greenpeace International.
- Here is a report by Conservation International on sustainable palm oil.
- Here is the website for the Accountability Framework initiative (AFi), a collaboration of conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Rainforest Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, and others to build and scale up ethical supply chains for forest products.
- Check the rankings of companies most responsible for tropical forest destruction in general before buying a product. This organization ranks companies on their impacts.
- Here is a list of cruelty-free (no animal testing) brands.
Buy products that either deliberately exclude palm oil as an ingredient or contain responsibly sourced palm oil, even though they can cost more. Consumers can help by avoiding products that contain commodity palm oil and by being willing to pay a premium price for responsibly produced oil.
- Many types of highly processed food contain palm oil. Avoiding these foods will reduce your exposure to palm oil and improve your health.
- Palm oil is listed or included under many different names on products. Names to watch out for: palmate, palmitate, palmolein, glyceryl, stearate, stearic acid, elaeis guineensis, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3.
- Here is a list of brands in the UK that score poorly for their use of palm oil.
- Here is a list of the types of self-care, household, and medicinal products that have palm oil.
- Products Without Palm Oil is a website that lists a variety of certified food, products, and recipes that do not contain palm oil. It also discusses allergies connected to the oil.
- The International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark program is nonprofit organization that certifies palm-oil-free products, identified by its trademark. Here is its Facebook page.
- Here is a guide to palm oil-free products from the Orangutan Foundation.
- Palm Done Right is a network of companies that grow and use organic, deforestation-free palm oil. Here is a list of their brand partners, including Dr. Bronner’s, Jovial, Pacha, Grove, and many more.
- The company Natural Habitats sells certified organic palm oil products from smallholder farms in Ecuador.
- Nutiva makes a certified organic, fair trade Ecuadorian Red Palm Oil.
- Daabon produces certified organic palm oil from its farm in Colombia.
Reduce your consumption of all tropical forest-based commodities. We should reduce the consumption of all commodities produced from tropical forests, including cattle, soy, and wood (timber and pulp). Reducing consumer demand for these products will lower the pressure on tropical forests and allow them to be protected and regenerated. See Tropical Forests Nexus.
Make a donation to an organization that protects and restores tropical forests and supports the rights of Indigenous peoples. Nongovernmental organizations play a critical role in the defense of tropical forests and Indigenous peoples around the world. Many of them work closely with Indigenous peoples and local communities to protect forests. Supporting these organizations with a donation or membership is vital to their success. (See Key Players below.)
Palm oil growers and manufacturers
Find ways to stop destroying rainforests. Palm oil companies, including farmers and processors, must meet future demand without further forest and ecosystem destruction, particularly intact, high-carbon, primary (old growth) forests. The expansion of palm oil plantations into secondary forests or other low-carbon areas needs to be done sustainably or curtailed. Strategies include:
- Decommodifying production, including the use of regenerative agroforestry practices such as those used by Indigenous peoples, which offer cost-effective, environmentally friendly ways to produce palm oil. Here is an article on palm oil agroforestry. Here is an article on palm oil production in Gabon. Here is an article by the Center for International Forestry Research about palm oil and agroforestry.
- Increasing productivity (yield) on existing palm oil farms and plantations. Recent plant science is working to triple the yield of oil per hectare through plant breeding, better land management, and increased mechanization.
- Genomic research is identifying genetic signatures and microbial suites associated with the traits of high-yielding palm oil plants. They are being isolated so they can be transferred into new generations of trees (via seed coatings, for instance), increasing yields without requiring additional land.
- Sustainably intensify the production of smallholder farms. Typically, they reach only 50 percent of their potential yield. Through the implementation of best-management practices, it is projected that smallholders could supply up to 71 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil production.
Produce food and other goods that meet consumer demand for sustainably grown palm oil. (See Individuals above.)
- Here is a study of the added value possibilities for palm oil grown and processed in west Africa.
Restore degraded rainforest. Passive restoration is simple and low cost. It focuses on releasing land from unsustainable use through protective measures that allow natural regeneration and succession. Active restoration involves planting and cultivating native seedlings as well as removing invasive species. Both can increase the quantity of carbon sequestration, though active restoration does so more quickly. Active restoration is usually employed in areas where soil has been severely degraded and where natural seedbanks are not present. See Degraded Land Restoration Nexus.
- One of the biggest palm oil growers in Indonesia has announced a plan to rehabilitate an area half the size of New York City.
Be accountable. Companies that manufacture products containing palm oil or are involved in the processing, trading, and supply of palm oil need to abide by robust, verifiable, mandatory standards for responsible sourcing and production, including the cessation of rainforest conversion and destruction. These standards must become policies, and companies must require their partners and suppliers to adhere to them. Companies need to make time-bound commitments and stick to their promises.
- Ensure traceability beyond the oil mill to the source farm or plantation in order to monitor and mitigate environmental and social risks and ensure that raw materials are not contributing to tropical deforestation. This would send a strong signal to the palm oil marketplace.
- Embrace transparency by reporting on palm oil sources and usage, as well as progress on company pledges and goals annually. Utilize new technology, including satellite monitoring of plantations and deforestation.
- Ensure commitments and actions cover the entire corporate group, apply to all countries in which the company operates, and covers all the types of palm oil used.
- Invest in projects on the ground that support the conservation and restoration of rainforests and support smallholder farmers.
- Support policy action that stops deforestation and create legislation requiring legal and sustainable palm oil production.
- End the use of palm oil in animal feed and pet food.
Consider using alternate vegetable oils. Properties similar to palm oil can be created by partially hydrogenating and blending oils from shea, sal, jojoba, kokum, illipé, jatropha, and mango kernels. These plants can be grown regeneratively as part of agroforestry projects.
Support the development and use of synthetic palm oil as a replacement for rainforest-derived oil. Technological advances in genetics and microbial manufacture in laboratory settings have allowed the creation a synthetic oil with a chemical profile identical to palm oil. The effort has drawn financial support and interest from European suppliers of palm oil. Researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. and the Technical University of Munich are developing a synthetic palm oil that bypasses the need for land-based feedstock, such as sugar derived from sugarcane. According to Bonsucro, a nonprofit organization that certifies environmentally friendly sugarcane, less than 5 percent of the sugar worldwide is grown sustainably. Economic challenges to synthetic palm oil include cost and scaling up to meet potential commercial demand. Companies developing synthetic palm oil include:
- Xylome, based in Wisconsin.
- c16 Biosciences, based in New York.
- Kiverdi, based in California.
Pass legislation that identifies, regulates, or prohibits products that contribute to the destruction of rainforests, including palm oil products.
- Here is the California Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, introduced in 2019, which would bar the state from purchasing certain products.
- In 2007, the U.S. Congress included a biofuel mandate in a law that encouraged an expansion in production of vegetable-based fuels, including palm oil. The European Union followed suit. However, the ensuing destruction of tropical rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations caused the EU to announce in 2019 that biofuels derived from palm oil and other food-based crops would be phased out.
Stop violence against Indigenous peoples and their land. Indigenous peoples across Indonesia are being denied prior consent to their ancestral land under the palm oil plantation assault. The nation’s least-developed province, Papua, home to critical rainforest and hundreds of Indigenous tribes, is being targeted by palm oil companies for development. The voices of Indigenous peoples are being suppressed and ignored.
Tell the truth. The scale and location of rainforest destruction has been misrepresented and obscured by the Indonesian government, as well as other governments. Repeatedly, officials insist that Indonesia had learned its lesson about deforestation and solved its palm oil problem. They painted a picture of an industry on a sustainable path, focused on increasing yields, not expanding footprints. They lied.
Support public-private efforts that aim to protect rainforests and enhance climate action. In 2021, a group of governments and companies announced the formation of the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance coalition (LEAF), which aims to raise $1 billion to accelerate climate action by providing results-based finance and establishing a carbon credit marketplace to help countries protect their tropical forests. It builds on and expands the REDD+ program developed by the UN, which has faced criticism. It also builds on the Green Climate Fund, which last year paid the Indonesian government $103.8m through REDD+. The LEAF initiative is intended to be the start of the largest-ever public-private effort to help protect tropical forests and the people depending on them. The U.S., U.K., Norway, Amazon, Nestlé, Unilever, and Airbnb are among the governments and corporations that have signed on.
Corporations that make processed food and household products continue to use palm oil, including:
- PepsiCo, a multinational snack and beverage corporation that uses palm oil in many of its ultra-processed products. The CEO is Ramon Laguarta. His email: email@example.com. His phone: 914-253-2000.
- Mondelez is one of the world’s largest snack companies and uses palm oil in many of its products. The CEO is Dirk Van de Put. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: 847-646-2000.
- Cargill, is a major supplier of unsustainable palm oil globally. The CEO is David MacLennan. His email: email@example.com. Phone: (952) 742-4507
- BlackRock, one of the largest financial firms in the world, is a major investor in palm oil. BlackRock’s CEO is Larry Fink. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone is (212) 810-5300.
Orangutan Foundation International is dedicated to the conservation of wild orangutans in their native habitat, including research and education.
Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of Indonesian NGOs that investigates and reports on forest crimes by palm oil, paper, and pulp companies.
Palm Oil Investigations, a watchdog organization that investigates palm oil production and distribution.
Forest Peoples Programme, a human rights organization working with forest peoples across the globe to secure their rights to their land.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme works on all aspects of orangutan conservation, including rescue, research, and reintroduction.
Profauna Indonesia is a foundation focused on the conservation of wildlife and forests in conjunction with Indigenous peoples.
TRAFFIC is a nonprofit that monitors wildlife trading networks worldwide in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.
Mighty Earth is an advocacy organization that works to protect half of the planet for nature.
PanEco, a Switzerland-based foundation that is actively involved in wildlife and nature protection in Indonesia.
Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia, a global organization focused on protecting wildlife and wild places in fourteen priority locations.
Sumatra Rainforest Institute, focused on improving management and protection of endangered species in northern Sumatra.
Rainforest Action Network preserves forests and upholds human rights through frontline partnerships and strategic campaigns.
Rainforest Trust purchases and protects tropical forests, saving endangered wildlife through partnerships and community engagement.
Survival International works in partnership with tribal peoples to protect their lives and land, fighting a legacy of land theft, forced development, and genocidal violence.
Rainforest Alliance builds alliances of people in over sixty countries to conserve forests and support sustainable livelihoods.
Rainforest Rescue advocates globally for the protection of rainforests and Indigenous communities.
Coalition for Rainforest Nations assists governments, communities, and peoples in fifty nations to responsibly manage their rainforests.
Amnesty International, a global movement in support of human rights and government accountability.
World Wildlife Fund has a forest protection program that works with local communities, pressures governments, and engages businesses.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature is a global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
CGIAR delivers critical science and innovation to transform the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis.
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services strengthens the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystems.
CITES, Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species.
Conservation International, a global conservation organization that combines fieldwork with policy, science, and finance.
The Nature Conservancy, an international organization and landowner that works at the intersection of science, management, and policy.
Greenpeace International, a frontline organization engaged in a variety of environmental issues.
Wirya Supriyadi, head of the Papua branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), the country’s largest and oldest green group.
Zenzi Suhadi, a leading environmental activist in Indonesia.
Abdon Nababan, an activist working to protect the rights of Indonesia’s Indigenous people.
Rudi Putra, a biologist and activist focused on stopping illegal palm oil production. He won the Goldman Prize in 2014.
Alfred Brownell, a Liberian activist who stopped tracts of forests from being clear-cut for palm oil plantations. He won the Goldman Prize in 2019.
Salsabila Khairunnisa, a high school student who cofounded Indonesian youth-led movement Jaga Rimba Khairunnisa and was listed as one of the BBC’s 100 inspiring and influential women for 2020.
David Gaveau, an environmental scientist who runs Nusantara Atlas, a research project tracking deforestation and fires in Indonesia.
Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Orangutan Project.
Glenn Hurowitz, activist and leader of Mighty Earth, which advocates for tropical forests and Indigenous communities.
Bill Laurance, one of the world’s leading tropical forest researchers.
Bustar Maitar, an Indonesian environmental activist who has worked to defend his native Papua from palm oil exploitation.
Technology is being deployed to trace palm oil fruit to a specific field and farm, which would ensure that new deforestation isn’t occurring. Efforts include:
- Nusantara Atlas
- Here is an article about the technology being used by Unilever (a major food company) to end deforestation across its supply chain.
- Here is an article about Indigenous groups in Peru using technology to monitor illegal activities in their forests.
Why Palm Oil Is So Cheap (7 mins)
Poverty and Palm Oil (13 mins)
Break Up with Palm Oil, featuring Jane Goodall (15 mins)
Palm Oil Production Process in Nigeria (15 mins)
Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman (New Press, 2021)
Mongabay, an international environmental new service
Rainforest Action Network’s archives on palm oil and rainforests.
News from the Center for Sustainable Palm Oil Studies, an industry think tank.
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