The Problem with Palm Oil

Nearly as omnipresent as high-fructose corn syrup, palm oil is in everything from soap to soup. However, the ubiquitous oil is wreaking environmental havoc and endangering wild animals.


This story originally ran in the January+February 2013 issue of VegNews. For the full article, pick up a copy of the magazine in the VegNews Store.

High above Borneo, it’s easy to get a sense of how palm oil has changed both the world’s economy and its landscape. This enormous tropical island—shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia—has been so relentlessly burned, bulldozed, and logged for palm production over the decades that unruly rainforests are rapidly giving way to countless rows of neatly planted oil palm trees. Near the coast, a perpetual haze of acrid smoke hangs in the air as bio-diverse peat swamps are set ablaze to create still more cropland, releasing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the Kinabatangan River, formerly clear and pristine, has become a coffee-colored ribbon of pollution carrying the endless debris of palm plantations out to sea.

And that’s just a bird’s eye view. Skirting the 348-mile-long Kinabatangan is a rich ecosystem of animal life, including orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, otters, pigs, and crocodiles, not to mention the 90 species of fish who call the contaminated river home. Each of these animals is impacted by the loss of habitat and environmental destruction brought on by successive waves of clear-cutting, oil-palm tree cultivation, and palm-oil production. Making matters worse is that logging for palm oil enables animal poachers and traders access to areas that were once remote. Other parts of Indonesia, including the island of Sumatra, are impacted as well, along with Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and a considerable portion of Malaysia; indeed, oil palms (not to be confused with coconut palms) can flourish just about anywhere that heat and regular rainfall combine, meaning environmentally fragile regions across the tropic zone have become hot spots of deforestation.

Palm oil is a huge agricultural commodity, currently produced in 42 countries, with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 90 percent of the market. Other top producers include Thailand, Cambodia, and Nigeria. According to the USDA, the total world production of palm oil is 50.6 million metric tons a year—and growing. Palm oil has crept into a bewildering variety of everyday products, from margarines to detergents to cosmetics. In fact, it’s estimated that no less than half of all household goods are made from palm ingredients. The push for palm got a big boost in 2006, when the US government required food labels to disclose a product’s trans fat content, considered a potent promoter of heart disease. Many manufacturers switched to palm oil, since it’s trans fats-free; being high in saturated fat, however, it still contributes to LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, same as trans fat. Palm oil is even used as a source of renewable energy, the demand for which is helping fuel the market for this versatile plant. All this begs the question: should we be consuming palm oil?

Wildlife on the Edge
Recognized by their reddish-brown hair and uniquely expressive faces, Asia’s only great ape once ranged from China in the north to as far south as the island of Java. Already decimated by illegal logging, the zoo industry, and the pet trade, orangutan numbers have dwindled so drastically that they are now found only on Borneo and nearby Sumatra living in scattered bits of degraded forests—isolated bastions that are quickly vanishing. “Palm oil production is taking their habitat,” says Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund of Orangutan Foundation International. “Where they live, where they nest, where they reproduce—all of it is being transformed into mega-plantations.”

Not only are these gentle animals losing their treetop dwellings, but because they face starvation, they seek food in developing palm farms and are subsequently persecuted as an agricultural pest. Workers may try to scare the animals away, but there’s a much grimmer response, says Burbank-Hammarlund. “Orangutans are beaten, their limbs are cut off with machetes, hot oil is thrown at them, they’re burned. It’s gruesome. Often mothers are killed on or near plantations and their babies are taken for the pet trade. This is all illegal, but it happens.” There have even been ugly whispers that some palm-oil companies were paying bounties on dead orangutans—a rumor that proved to be tragically true when two Indonesian plantation workers were arrested in 2011 for allegedly killing at least 20 primates. (The pair were convicted last year and sentenced to eight months in prison, while the men who ordered the killings were fined about $3,000.) Graver still is the routine practice of clearing land with fire. These infernos not only kill orangutans, but palm-oil companies have been accused of forcing some fleeing apes back into the flames. All told, one recent study estimates that of the 50,000 or so surviving orangutans, more than 2,500 are killed every year in relation to palm oil.

Likewise, with their voracious appetites and taste for oil-palm fronds and fruit, Sumatran elephants are considered pests and are frequent victims of poisoning by plantation workers. Fewer than 3,000 of these pachyderms remain in the wild. Even more critically endangered are Sumatran tigers, who depend on the dense vegetation of forests for their survival and are dying at a startling rate, with only about 400 of the cats left. The Malayan tapir—an elusive species that remained largely unknown until recently—is disappearing as quickly as the rainforests, while sun bears, bearded pigs, and rhinos are also suffering the effects of habitat displacement.

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