Palm oil is cheap to produce and can be used in a variety of products. But the oil comes at a costly price – tropical forests are being destroyed with terrible consequences for people and animals.
As a consumer, you probably haven’t paid any attention to how much palm oil you buy, or in which products it can be found but it is used as an ingredient in virtually everything from butter to ice cream to cakes to soap and cosmetics to name a few. Palm oil is currently the most heavily utilized vegetable oil in the world largely due to the efficiency of production. In developed markets, it is used in about half of all packaged foods and cleaning products. Millions of people, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, rely on palm oil for their livelihood. With the increased use of palm oil, the business has also been on the receiving end of severe criticism by environmental organizations due to it being a major reason to the world’s rainforests decreasing at present, so while palm oil is an effective crop to grow, it causes major environmental and humanitarian issues.
The oil palm yields more oil per hectare of land than any other crop, and it requires less fertilizer than other oil plants. But in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the majority of palm oil is produced, the world’s hunger for cheap oil has had terrible consequences. The construction of new plantations often leads to conflicts with the local population and the salary of the palm oil plantation is often far below the minimum wage, and it is common for family members to be forced to work for free to achieve the work goals. The work is risky, and those who do the job do not always get the compensation they are entitled to.
Malaysia and Indonesia are the world’s second largest producer of palm oil and now the country threatens to report the EU to the World Trade Organization WTO after the EU has decided to phase out palm oil in biofuels until 2030. The fact that the two countries criticize the EU’s future palm oil ban on biofuels has to do with the fact that their exports to the EU risk-reducing and Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry says in a statement:
“Such an aggressive trade barrier targeted at Malaysia’s national interests, and our 650,000 small farmers, cannot pass without a strong response. “
The EU remains firm on phasing out palm oil because of its direct destruction on the tropical rainforest. Changes in land use and deforestation are the single largest contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions in tropical countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. When rainforest is devastated and burned, the carbon dioxide that was previously bound in the trees is released. And when constructing oil palm plantations, peat bogs are dried, which releases carbon dioxide, and the greenhouse gas methane is dispersed from the plantings’ sewage ponds.
The worst is perhaps the consequence of wildlife. The original rainforest in Indonesia is one of the world’s most species-rich. When a forest area is devastated to make room for oil palm trees, 80–100 percent of wildlife disappears from the site, and many animal species become extinct.
In addition to the environmental issues, the health problems associated with the fat rich oil are also a concern. It contains large amounts of saturated fat and there have been studies that support a correlation between increased intake of palm oil and deaths in cardiovascular diseases.
Solutions to the environmental problems posed by palm production are complicated, partly because of palm oil’s ubiquity, but also because alternatives lack many benefits of the versatile oil – but they are out there.