Palm oil: The hidden cost of processed food

WASHINGTON, October 16, 2013—Palm oil, currently the most widely produced vegetable oil worldwide and found in an astounding variety of foods, comes at a very large human and environmental cost. Driven by elevated demand and high prices, palm oil destroys rainforests, further endangers threatened species, contributes to climate change, and hides a host of human rights violations.

Derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil is used in food and in manufacturing cosmetics. Oil palm grows in the tropical regions in Colombia, Ghana, New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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Palm oil produced in Indonesia and Malaysia accounts for 90 percent of global palm oil production, making palm oil plantations the main driver of deforestation in these areas. The conversion from primary forests to palm oil plantations has a devastating effect on communities and the environment.

Deforestation and loss of species

Global demand for palm oil has sped up deforestation, as palm oil prices rise and plantations become increasingly profitable. In 2006, there were 11 million hectares of palm oil on the planet, six million in Indonesia, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). By 2011, Indonesia had nine million hectares of palm oil plantations, with a whopping 26 million projected for 2025, according to Rainforest Rescue.

This rapid deforestation affects hundreds of species, including threatened and endangered species like the Asian elephant, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, tapir, sun bear and the orangutan, all of which are rapidly losing their habitat and numbers.

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Most of these large animals, like the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros cannot live on land that has been converted to palm oil production. This is having a devastating impact on their population. The Sumatran tiger, for example, is listed as critically endangered, with less than 500 left in the wild, according to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

Others like the elephant and orangutan can live in palm oil plantations, but are considered pests by farmers because they eat palm fronds and nuts. There are an estimated 1,500 pygmy elephants left living in Borneo, for instance.

The plight of the orangutan has recently been highlighted in several campaigns. Wild orangutan populations have decreased by 50 percent in the past decade and are in danger of becoming extinct within our lifetime, according to the Orangutan Project. Their habitat has been reduced by as much as 80 percent, according to RAN. This devastating loss of population is largely attributed to palm oil plantations, which pose several threats to these and other animals.

For one thing, the clearing of thousands of acres of jungle every day has shrunk the orangutan’s habitat, who, like the oil palm, thrive in fertile lowlands close to water. Often, the land is cleared by fire, and many orangutans—because they are slow moving—get trapped in the blaze. Additionally, orangutans are killed by farmers who consider them pests. Finally, palm oil plantations provide easier access to hunters and exotic pet traders.

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Climate change

Rapid conversion into palm oil plantations is destroying forests and peatlands, essential in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The draining and clearing of peatlands also releases carbon emissions. Additionally, the fires used to clear forests and prepare land for planting further add to carbon dioxide emissions.

In fact, Indonesian fires are suspected to have been one of the main sources of global carbon dioxide emissions in 1997, the year with the highest emissions on record since record keeping began in 1957, according to WWF.

Human Rights violations

With a long history of human rights violations, palm oil production has been associated with community conflict, illegal taking of community lands and destruction of traditional ways of life for several indigenous and jungle-dependent communities. In Indonesia, the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations endangers the lives and tramples the rights of millions of communities who rely on the jungle for their survival, livelihood, and cultural identity.

Child labor has been widely documented in many palm oil plantations, especially in Indonesia. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, palm oil is among the industries most known for forced and child labor. RAN estimates that between 72,000 and 200,000 children are employed on palm oil plantations.

What foods contain palm oil?

Rainforest Action Network

Palm oil is in nearly half of all the products found in supermarkets, according to the RAN. It is used as a vegetable oil, but palm oil is also present in thousands of processed foods including ice cream, frozen foods, margarine, chocolate, fruit juice and commercially baked goods from cookies to cakes to breads.

RAN recently identified the “Snack Food 20,” 20 U.S. companies that manufacture popular snack foods using what has come to be called “conflict” palm oil, i.e. palm oil that is produced in a way that contributes to deforestation, species extinction, climate change and human rights violations. These include Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Dunkin’ Brands, General Mills, Grupo Bimbo and Nestlé.

Several cosmetic and household products also contain palm kernel oil, including soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergents.

Few producers list “palm oil” as an ingredient, however. They instead use the term “vegetable oil,” or over 150 different names. There are several lists of alternate names for palm oil, including one from the Philadelphia Zoo, one from RAN, and one from Save Orangutans.

In 2004 several companies and NGOs formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization to promote sustainable production of palm oil. However, RSPO has been criticized for certifying peatland and deforestation as sustainable and for having weak enforcement mechanisms. Many of the “Snack Food 20” belong to RSPO.

It is difficult to avoid palm oil and products containing it because it is not usually listed as an ingredient. The best way to avoid palm oil is to avoid commercially fried and baked foods as well as highly processed foods.  


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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