Why Palm Oil Isn’t the Enemy

If you watched last night’s premiere of “Years of Living Dangerously,” the new Showtime series about the impacts of climate change, you likely found yourself thinking palm oil’s pretty bad stuff.

oil palm fruit in Malaysia

Oil palm fruit in Malaysia. Palm oil may be found in half the products on an average supermarket shelf. (© Benjamin Drummond)

As CI vice chair Harrison Ford flew over scorched patches of former forest being planted with palm oil and visited orphaned orangutans in Indonesia, it’s hard not to have a visceral reaction to this devastation.

So you may be surprised to hear an environmentalist say that palm oil itself isn’t the enemy — it’s where and how it’s grown that we need to change.

As far as edible oils go, palm oil is actually quite good. For starters, the oil palm tree, which is the source of palm oil, is highly productive. Oil palm yields 4–10 times more oil per hectare than other oilseed crops, including soybean and canola.

Put another way, this means more oil produced on less land. In fact, palm oil represents about 38% of the world’s supply of edible oil, but it’s grown on only 5% of the land dedicated to oilseed crops globally. With international demand for edible oils growing steadily, more oil from less land is a good thing.

Odds are you consume palm oil every day — you just don’t know it. In Asia, where the vast majority of palm oil is produced and consumed, it is a common cooking oil. Here in the U.S., it’s estimated that palm oil or ingredients derived from it are used in half of the products on the average supermarket shelf.

So yes, it’s in your cookies, your baked goods, your margarines, your lipsticks and skin lotions, your shampoo and toothpaste and a wide range of other packaged foods and personal care products. In part, that’s because palm oil is a highly versatile product that lends itself well to food products and processing, and is naturally free of trans fats. That’s good.

It’s also valuable. Palm oil generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue for producing countries, and is estimated to employ more than 6 million people globally. That’s good, too.

man harvesting oil palm fruit, Malaysia

Man harvests oil palm fruit near Malaysia’s Pasoh Forest Reserve. (© Benjamin Drummond)

So, is it all good news? Definitely not.

Deforestation, draining and planting palm on peat lands, land disputes with rural communities — all of these have been major consequences of the global palm oil boom. Many problems stem from the fact that too much oil palm has been planted at the expense of tropical forest.

These forests are a critical source of food, medicines and other materials; they are vital to regulating weather patterns and buffering local communities from storms and floods, and are home to many of the world’s most unique and threatened species (including orangutans). Forests also play a critical role in maintaining healthy watersheds and river systems that are essential for communities and downstream agriculture.

And loss of forests doesn’t just impact local communities. Deforestation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

So now what? Do you have to walk away from your cookies and doughnuts? Do I think Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, should stop planting oil palm? No.

Palm oil and deforestation do not have to go hand in hand. In fact, there are massive efforts underway to break this cycle and put the palm oil sector on a path to sustainability.

For example, I sit on the board of governors of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  This is a network of hundreds of organizations with interests in the global palm oil supply chain, from oil palm growers to consumer goods manufacturers to NGOs including CI.

The RSPO has developed a set of sustainability standards for the industry, and in just six years, the group has certified 16% of global production. In addition, several major producers are voluntarily exceeding these standards, and the Indonesian government has developed a national standard with the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) initiative.

Here’s more good news: Indonesia and other palm oil-producing countries can produce more without cutting down additional forests. The World Resources Institute estimated there may be 14 million hectares (more than 34.6 million acres — an area about twice the size of Ireland) of previously cleared or “degraded” land in Indonesian Borneo alone that could potentially be suitable for palm oil. Compared to the roughly 9 million hectares (22.2 million acres) currently covered by oil palm in Indonesia, that’s room for a lot of growth without clearing more forest.

palm oil plantation, Borneo

Mature palm oil plantation in Borneo. (© David Gilbert/RAN)

There are also opportunities to significantly increase productivity on existing palm plantations. Indonesia’s smallholder producers represent approximately 40% of palm oil cultivation, but their yields per hectare are half the Indonesia national average.

Efforts like CI’s Sustainable Landscapes Partnership in North Sumatra are working to help growers increase productivity on existing lands while simultaneously working with local government and communities to protect critical forests in the production landscape.

Is the palm oil industry sustainable? Not yet, but it’s heading in the right direction.

Indonesia has a critical opportunity to build a better industry while protecting its remaining forests. The government has some good initiatives and policies in place, but they need better and stronger enforcement.

As a consumer, you too have a voice — and you should use it. If your favorite product contains palm oil, contact the manufacturer and ask them to use certified sustainable palm oil from suppliers that have made a clear commitment to halt deforestation. If the manufacturer already uses sustainable palm oil, ask them to indicate this on product packaging to help consumers make the best choice to protect the environment.

The RSPO Shopping Guide lists products that carry the RSPO logo. You can also check here to find out if a company is a member of the RSPO and see what actions they are taking to improve the sustainability of their supply chains.

There are good things happening in the palm oil sector, and consumers should support those leading the charge.

John Buchanan is senior director of sustainable food and agriculture markets in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. He is also on the board of governors of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Learn more about CI’s efforts to make the palm oil industry more sustainable in this fact sheet (PDF–556 KB)


  1. Radford Davis says

    Very nice article. I’ve wondered about this issue of palm oil in so many foods. Was I contributing to the downfall of humanity if I purchased such items? I will look for the certified palm oil in the future, but I suspect that will be a bit down the road for most grocers.

  2. rbnigh says

    The problem with ‘sustainable guidelines’ is they call for planting on already deforested land, which often translates in land in forest regeneration, canceling the forests of the future.

    1. John Buchanan says

      You raise an excellent point. Not all “degraded lands” should be further developed for agriculture. In some instances, these areas should be restored to natural forest. This is very much dependent upon the specific conditions of the landscape in question. Thanks for raising this point.

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  4. Mike Hamblett says

    In responding so promptly to the TV programme you have put yourself up as a spin doctor for the industry. It is clear from the current destruction that the round table is currently not able to police the activities of of more devious palm oil companies. Indonesians are no different to the ‘snouts in the trough’ in US, Brazil or UK. Whilst I hope that control of destruction is happening, this issue is so urgent that I am not willing to drop the avoid palm oil campaign. But I do of course hope that user companies will go for the sustainable option, but as we know from timber accreditation it is a slow and difficult process.

  5. Lee says

    I am currently living in Costa Rica, where the oil palms are plentiful in many sectors that used to be lush, biodiverse rainforest. It pains me to see such monocropping going on in areas where thousands of different species used to coexist, and I, like one of the other commenters said, am going to continue to avoid palm oil whenever I can.

    My question to you is the following: In what sense are your roundtable and other organizations looking at the diversification of palm oil plantations to include native tree species interspersed among the palms? Is it impossible to envision a agro-forestry palm plantation diverse enough to harbor orangutan or other jungle life?

    1. Molly Bergen says

      Hi Lee — John Buchanan responds to your question below.

      “Thanks for a good question. While the majority of palm is produced in monocrop systems, it is also produced in more diverse agroforestry systems and there are efforts to further develop these models. However, there are also some constraints given that the oil palm fruit have to be processed within 24 hours of harvest to maintain quality levels. That creates an incentive to keep the palm trees close to the processing mill and is a disincentive to diversify. There are some interesting initiatives underway to develop smaller scale palm processing mills with smallholder producers that might in the future help address these constraints. In the meantime, most efforts are focused on protecting and avoiding conversion of critical forests, and maintaining forest areas within plantations (for example riparian buffers). Groups like the Zoological Society of London and others are working to understand what species can be supported in palm landscapes, what are best management practices to support biodiversity, and establish monitoring systems to track changes over time.”

  6. Klaus Wünnemann says

    you stressed some very good points like efficiency of palm oil. Nevertheless we can´t refrain from urging our customers to refrain from palm oil products until there are producers which really follow sustainable rules, which in my opinion also includes to reforest – at least partly – areas which have been altered from Rainforest to plantation. I see the Palm oil Business in something like a gold rush where everyone who does the right thing is businesswise compared with those who make more profit with motre ruthless attitudes. In this atmosphere it is best to stop the rush that goodwilling parts of the market have time to develop their strategy. RSPO is neccessary but up to now not able to convince me.

  7. Dipanjan Mitra says

    Who will educate the mindless and endless consumers of India, where corruption is everywhere, where the political parties are only worried about power and money. The largest democratic country in the world is nothing but a super market. Until and unless some policy on the control of population is implemented with immediate effect, India is only going to go down, especially environmentally. India’s forest cover was over 73% even a century ago which has come down to as low as 13-14% now and that is alarming.

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  13. Ron Peterson says

    People shouldn’t eat palm oil or palm kernal oil because it is highly saturated leading to cardio-vascular disease and diabetes.

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