Palm Oil: What Is Palm Oil And Is It Really That Bad For The Environment?
Time to read 3 min
Time to read 3 min
For decades the palm oil industry flew under the radar, but thanks to documentaries like Before the Flood people have begun to learn more about it. That said, many are unsure of many things like what products contain palm oil, if there are palm oil benefits, if there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil, and of course the most common question- why is palm oil bad for the environment in general? So let’s get into it.
Despite palm oil being the most commonly used oil on the planet, few in the United States really know what it is or where it came from. The fact is that palm oil comes from the oil palm tree, which is native to western Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century however, the trees were brought for cosmetic reasons to southeast Asia. Today 85% of the palm oil on the market comes from either Indonesia or Malaysia.
Palm oil is grown all year around as a monocrop. This means that farmers clear out rainforests and native species of plants (specifically in southeast Asia) in order to turn it all into palm oil plantations. This is done in a variety of ways, but most popular way is to burn down the rainforests (along with any species who live there).
There are two kinds of palm oils- crude and palm kernel. The crude palm oil is harvested by squeezing the fruit from the oil palm tree, and the palm kernel oil is extracted by crushing the pit of the fruit.
Palm oil is found in over 50% of packaged products in the United States, including popcorn, toothpaste, vegetable oil spreads, chips, lipstick, and bar soaps. It’s also used as fuel and put in animal feed all over the world. It’s a semi-solid oil at room temperature, making it valuable for things like keeping spreads spreadable and lipsticks usable. It’s also extremely stable, so it keeps packaged products from spoiling. Palm oil is also odorless and tasteless, so there is no limit to what it can be utilized in. In countries where it is grown, it’s also used as a cooking oil.
There are a lot of impacts to consider when thinking about if palm oil is sustainable. The oil is one of the most efficient oil crops, since a lot can be produced over very little land. That said, that’s where the environmental benefits stop. There are a lot of concerns raised about the societal impact of the palm oil industry (such as child labor and worker exploitation), but many want to know why palm oil is also bad for the environment. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Thanks to the slash and burn method of planting the palm oil crops, this leads to habitat destruction. Oil palm trees grow in tropical rainforests, meaning that in order to plant the trees, farmers end up burning down and clearing the other plants that exist there. In places like Indonesia, this is especially destructive. That rainforest is one of the three major rainforests left on the planet, and it’s home to many endangered species- including rhinos, tigers, elephants, and orangutans. Because of the danger and death brought to the rainforest there, palm oil is the number one reason why orangutans are so critically endangered. Up to 5,000 of them are killed in the region every year. The palm industry doesn’t just destroy the land and native plants. Palm oil deforestation also kills those who rely on those spaces.
Due to the destruction of habitats that the palm oil industry causes, this leads to the widespread dislocation of numerous species- including ones that don’t blend well with humans. This is causing increasing human-wildlife conflicts as more species are being crowded into smaller fragments of nature. In Sumatra alone, 43% of Tesso Nilo National Park has been illegally taken over by the industry, which has forced many large species to abandon the sanctuary that has so long been separate from human activity.
Because monocrop agriculture strains the soil, palm oil plantations are severely eroding the land. This is causing more severe flooding and the muddying of freshwater systems nearby. The palm oil erosion isn’t just damaging to the ecosystem. It’s resulting in expensive and dangerous problems for locals, including the destruction of bridges and roads.