The Environmental Cost of Palm Oil

By: Emily Main  |  "The Palm Oil Predicament," July/August 2016
Read about the environmental impacts of palm oil plus what you can look for at the grocery store.
Palm oil is showing up in foods from pizza to pastries. Palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, estimated to be in half of all U.S. supermarket products. It's cheap, versatile and abundant—but at what environmental cost? We dug into this ingredient that's becoming increasingly common in packaged food.
What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is an ingredient used to extend shelf life and improve texture; it's commonly found in instant noodles, ice cream, chocolate, cookies and bread (and even nonfood items like shampoo and lipstick). Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree and it's about 50 percent saturated fat. Palm kernel oil is squeezed from the seed of the fruit and is about 80 percent saturated fat. For comparison, butter and coconut oil are 66 and 92 percent saturated fat, respectively. Red palm oil, primarily sold as a cooking oil, is a less refined, more flavorful version of palm oil (think extra-virgin olive oil).
This oil's popularity among food manufacturers in the U.S. can, in part, be tied to the research that linked trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils with negative effects on heart health. When food manufacturers began scrambling for alternatives to trans fat–laden oils, palm oil answered the call. U.S. palm oil consumption doubled between 2006 (when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first required labeling of trans fats on the Nutrition Facts panel) and 2015 (when the FDA announced a ban effective in June 2018).
Related: Cooking Oil 101: Healthy Cooking Oil Guide
Palm Oil and Deforestation
While palm oil doesn't have trans fats, it comes with environmental baggage. Most palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, where plantations have been expanding into rain forests unchecked. In Sumatra alone, between 2000 and 2010, palm oil production destroyed 2,620 square miles—an area larger than the Florida Everglades—of rain forest, peat swamp, mangrove forests and critical habitat for endangered species.
For instance, endangered Sumatran tigers in Indonesia lost nearly two-thirds of their habitat in a span of three years. And while a national park in Indonesia has been created to protect these tigers, the World Wildlife Fund reports that 43 percent of this park has been overrun with illegal palm oil plantations. Another threatened animal is the Sumatran rhino. There are only about 100 of these rhinos left in the world in 2016 and their only remaining wild habitat is in Indonesia—near rapidly expanding oil palm plantations.
The rain forest and peat bog destruction also have a huge impact on climate change. Forests and bogs are carbon sinks—land that stores carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and keeps it out of the atmosphere. One study estimated that destroying all the Southeast Asian peat bogs would release as much carbon as nine years of global fossil fuel use.
This devastation can cause further cascades of damage. "Deforestation and peatland destruction to grow oil palm and related commodities was one of the main drivers behind Indonesia's 2015 forest-fire crisis," says Ivy Schlegel, research specialist with Greenpeace's Palm Oil Campaign Team. "Last year, these forest fires resulted in $14 billion in damage, and they created haze that millions of people had to breathe for months, with dire health consequences."

In stark contrast to the first photo of a palm oil plantation in Costa Rica following smart farming practices, here we see rain-forest devastation caused by palm production in Southeast Asia.
Palm Oil Solutions
The largest initiative to fix such problems is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO works with farmers to increase yields through smart farming practices, like improving soil quality. In turn, farmers don't need to chop down more forest, and critically endangered species' habitats are protected. RSPO has come under fire for accountability and enforcement issues, so you may want to seek out companies that have established additional policies for sourcing sustainable palm oil, like Nestlé, Kellogg and General Mills. Rainforest Action Network has a complete scorecard of palm oil policies at ran.org/sf20scorecard.
Concerned shoppers can also buy products made with organic palm oil. Why? It's grown in Africa and South America, areas that aren't experiencing the same problems with palm oil production. Natural Habitats USA, for example, sources oil from small organic farmers in Ecuador. These palm oil producers plant multiple crops to enhance soil fertility and use integrated pest management and buffer zones to create a healthier, more viable ecological habitat. Products that use Natural Habitats USA palm oil are marked with a "Palm Done Right" logo.
Read More:
10 Ways Big Food Is Changing to Meet Consumer Demand
Palm Oil versus Palm Kernel Oil
5 Best Fish to Eat and Avoid (For Your Health and the Environment)
How to Live Green: 5 Eating Changes That Have the Biggest Environmental Benefit