The Problem with Palm Oil

Like many other people who give half a fig (or indeed several figs) about the environment, biodiversity, deforestation and orang-utans, I have signed petitions calling for the banning of rainforest destruction for the creation of palm oil plantations, admonished companies that use ‘Wilmar’ palm oil in particular (the world’s largest trader) in products such as Oreos and now check the ingredients on food products (also toiletries) in an endeavour to avoid it. It is ubiquitous and it is undeniably devastating in terms of rainforest destruction. There are also other damaging humanitarian, social and economic costs. The message conveyed in Iceland’s effective short film headed up by Emma Thompson seems simple – and clear. Unfortunately, as with so much in life, it may not be quite so clear cut. 

None of what follows is a justification for deforestation or the environmental catastrophe that currently ensues as a result of our use of palm oil. For example, half of the Bornean orang-utan population has been wiped out in 16 years with habitat destruction due to palm oil industry as a key cause. (1)

So, avoiding/substituting/eliminating palm oil looks like an obvious win… well: “At a global average of 3.3 tonnes of oil per hectare the oil palm produces a higher per-hectare yield than any other oilseed crop and is thus the most efficient in terms of its land footprint” (2) and: “A shift from palm oil to other oil crops, does not guarantee a net positive outcome for biodiversity.”  (3)

The substitution of palm oil with other tropical plant oils could come at great environmental cost – soya and coconut oil grow in similar or ecologically similarly sensitive regions, and replacement of one oil for another would not solve the problem and may – arguably – exacerbate it. More land would be required, more greenhouse gas emissions would be generated, and more species would be endangered. Substitution with oils such as rape seed or sunflower oil may also not be an answer as palm oil has a range of unique characteristics for which technical substitutes are currently not easy to find. 

The ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) has been touted as a solution to this. Once again, it does not appear to provide a ready or satisfactory answer. Whilst no doubt created with all good intentions, it’s teeth seem far from incisor sharp as – for example – countries can simply ‘pay’ to be a member. This may be a prime example of ‘greenwashing’ (I’d be pleased to be told I was wrong though). I would similarly suggest that Iceland’s attempts to replace palm oil in their own label products could be accused of the same (for the reasons set out above) – well intentioned though it may be. 

Now, this may seem a bit of a ‘counsel of despair’ – it is not intended to be, nor do I think it need be. We should all continue to check our labels for ingredients (not just food stuffs, also soap, cosmetics, household cleaners etc) and avoid palm oil whenever possible, check for RSPO certification if you feel you must buy (remembering it is not currently an absolute panacea.)  As individuals we can ‘do our bit’ by avoiding processed foods, by cooking from fresh as much as we can, by consuming less sweet and fatty foods and also by reducing our meat consumption – buying and eating local produce as much as possible. We should continue to lobby for an end to the destruction of ‘the lungs of the earth’ to satisfy palm oil production, but we should remain alert to the possibility companies may well attempt ‘greenwashing’ in either talking about sustainable palm oil (which is possible) or in providing  alternatives that may not be the solutions we were wishing for.

  1. World’s biggest brands still linked to rainforest destruction in Indonesia Greenpeace international 19 September 2018
  2. WWF Palm Oil Report Germany Searching for Alternatives page 4
  3. Oil palm and biodiversity A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force INTERNATIONAL UNION FOR CONSERVATION OF NATURE Meijaard, E., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Sheil, D., Wich, S.A., Carlson, K.M., Juffe-Bignoli, D., and Brooks, T.M. page vii


I do recommend the WWF report cited above! 

Delyth Rennie 


1 thought on “The Problem with Palm Oil”

  1. Great blog piece, and I agree with all that Delyth says. However, we should be clear that the expansion of palm oil plantations at the expense of our rainforests must stop. These are the lungs of our planet and, tragically, it is likely that all of the Indonesian rainforest will have been felled by the middle of the next decade, unless consumers stop buying products that contain palm oil. Indeed, because of rainforest destruction, Indonesia is now ranked as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide.

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