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Is Palm Oil Really That Bad? 

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Abie Halliday delves into the world of palm oil cultivation and questions whether it is the sole biggest threat to East Asian biodiversity, or are there other factors at play?


The oil comes from the fruit of oil palm trees

Everyone remembers the controversial ‘rang-tan’ advert that Iceland released at Christmas in 2018, in which they pledged to remove palm oil from “all [their] own label products”. They had committed to doing this by the end of the year, however recently it has been revealed that Iceland are still selling own-brand products containing palm oil; some frozen in stores and some perishable goods online. After the controversy of the Christmas advert, it begs the question as to whether palm oil is really as serious a threat to the Asian rainforest and orangutans as it was first presented to be.

Palm oil is consumed in a fashion not unlike other oils such as vegetable or rapeseed; it can be found in many everyday supermarket products such as soap and shampoo, as well as in many foods. This means that, globally, the demand for palm oil is incredibly high. To cope with this demand, oil palm trees are grown in large plantations, particularly in East Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. It is these plantations that contribute to deforestation and habitat destruction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that “In Malaysia… oil palm development accounted for 47% of deforestation from 1972 to 2015”. Similarly, another report suggests that palm oil plantations represent 20-21% of all post-1973 deforestation in Borneo. This same article suggests that total deforestation in Borneo has risen from 15% in 1973-2000 to 55-57% in 2005.

A big question on the subject of palm oil is how badly the biodiversity of plantations is affected by its cultivation. Like Iceland, let’s focus on the orangutans. Whilst decreases in orangutan encounters have been observed since the 19th century, most likely due to hunting, another study has revealed dramatic reductions occurring much more recently, reporting that “Bornean orangutan populations have declined at a rate of 25% over the last 10 years”. While the hunting of orangutans is still happening today, increases in deforestation rates since the 1960s could easily explain this sudden population drop, and with the demand for palm oil constantly on the rise, it would seem that the destruction of habitat for oil palm plantations is part of the problem.


Orangutans are only found in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo

However, oil palm plantations are not the only contributor to deforestation in East Asia. It is a possibility that, while the world is focusing on palm oil, other causes of deforestation are going unnoticed. Another huge contributor to deforestation, especially in Indonesia, is illegal logging. Legal logging requires specific permits from the government, such as an IPK; a Timber Utilization Permit, However, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests that illegal logging is in fact an issue caused by oil palm plantations. The EIA found that, in 2005, there was a “sudden surge in timber” which “exceeded the annual allowable cut by 150 per cent” despite little change in the amount of forest under logging concessions. This surge “coincided with a surge in the issuance of permits for oil palm concessions”, suggesting that this extra timber could in fact be coming from forest being converted to plantations, which are unlicensed for logging. Therefore, while illegal logging is still a strong contributor to deforestation in Indonesia, it may be somewhat caused by oil palm plantations.

Overall, the answer is yes: palm oil really is that bad. While there are clearly other contributors to deforestation, such as logging (legal or not), it would seem that the demand for palm oil means that clearing of forest for plantations is a serious problem that deserves the attention it is currently getting from the media. The level of deforestation in East Asia, as well as the sudden and significant drop in orangutan population, appears to be heavily caused by oil palm plantations and so is definitely something that we as a population should be aware of and working against.


Palm oil plantations are a key driver of deforestation in Indonesia

So, what can we do? So many of our everyday items use palm oil; just looking through the house you’re sure to find several products containing it. Chocolate, margarine, shampoo, and even some non-dairy substitutes. Through some quick research here, I was able to find a list of palm oil-free alternatives, and, as handy as this is, only a couple of mainstream names cropped up as having products completely free of palm oil. Having to scour the shops for the names of brands you don’t recognise or having to order online, is time-consuming and costly, especially when working on a student schedule and budget. However, another alternative is to find products that use sustainable palm oil products, as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). While this does not solve the problem of palm oil, it is definitely a step in the right direction to a better planet and a decrease in the rate of deforestation for plantations.

About the author: Abie Halliday has a strong interest in journalism and is planning on pursuing an English Literature degree. You can follow her on Instagram at @AbieIsAce.

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