the dangers of palm oil

July 2019

If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Even if you haven’t heard of the term “palm oil,” you certainly have come in contact with it. Palm oil is harvested from oil palm trees, which are native to West Africa. It is used in all kinds of products, but primarily in food production. You can find it in your cooking oils, your butter, and your shampoos, lotions, and much more. It is also insanely cheap to produce; it uses 10 times less land to produce the same amount of oil as the soybean plant.

It’s cheap, plentiful, and makes our food tasty. Where is the problem?

As it turns out, the consequences of mass-producing palm oil are more sinister than our society realizes. The abundance of palm oil has made the production of processed and unhealthy foods skyrocket, fueling our nation’s obesity problem. Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) warns against heating palm oil to high temperatures, as it can lead to the creation of cancer-causing toxins.

The largest and most dangerous impact of palm oil production is the rapid deforestation that is required to sustain the industry. Palm oil trees thrive in the same tropical climate that rainforests do. Earth’s major rainforests are located in the South American Amazon, the African Congo River Basin, and in the South East Asia, specifically Indonesia and Malaysia. Countless acres of these rainforests have been burned to make room for massive palm oil plantations. Experts are predicting that 98% of Indonesia’s rainforest will have been converted to palm oil production by 2050.

Rainforest ecosystems are some of the most biodiverse on the planet, meaning they contain the highest amount of species in a given area. Indonesia alone houses between 10-20% of known plant, animal and insect species in the world due to its dense rainforests. Sadly, over ⅓ these species are in danger of extinction, while 14% of Malaysia’s species are listed as endangered.

As these species’ habitats are destroyed to make room for palm oil trees, their populations get smaller and smaller. Indonesia and Malaysia are home to last wild orangutans, and they are in critical danger of becoming extinct. The Sumatran elephant, Goffin's Cockatoos, rhinoceros, and tiger are all clinging on to survival as they see their habitats shrink and be replaced by palm oil trees.

Species extinction negatively impacts humanity more than we realize; many medicinal remedies and pharmaceuticals, such as penicillin, are derived from or inspired by the genetics of various plants and animals found in the rainforests. With each species that dies off, we are actively reducing our access to potential medical breakthroughs.

Rainforest removal also threatens the quality of the air we breathe. Rainforests work double time to purify our air by sucking out carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen, and they do so more efficiently than any other ecosystem. By tearing them down, we are depleting a critical source of clean oxygen. The smoke and air pollution caused by rainforest removal, typically done by burning, greatly worsens the air for the local communities.

Apart from worsening the air quality, the emissions from the burning rainforests further accelerate the climate change crisis. Not only does it add more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but losing the rainforest also means we lose a critical carbon regulation system. Without having our rainforests to constantly convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, we are left with dangerous, heat-trapping gases that run rampant and further warm our atmosphere.

On the surface, it appears that the palm oil industry has provided the people living in and around the rainforest with a steady source of employment and economic development. However, the jobs offered to the locals demand long, grueling hours of work for little pay. There are also few laws restricting child labor, and the industry has been known to seize private lands to further their interests.

So palm oil production causes extensive environmental destruction, wreaks havoc on our clean air, and violates many human rights. What can we do to stop it?

First, we can try to avoid products containing palm oil. It is very pervasive; you can find it in many common items that you purchase daily. The good news is that there are PLENTY of products on the market that have committed to be palm-oil free, and that number grows every day. You can find lists of palm-oil free brands and products through organizations such as Selva Beat and Products Without Palm Oil. Palm oil likes to hide under many different ingredient names, so try and familiarize yourself with some of them through this helpful guide.

The most effective way to get rid of palm oil is to reduce our overall consumption of goods. Palm oil production will continue to be as massive problem as long as our society allows. As we reduce our consumption, we reduce the size of the industry and ultimately reduce its dangerous impact on the climate change crisis, our environment, humanity, and our precious species.