Why palm oil isn’t the enemy

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)

Editor’s note: In April 2018, the UK-based grocery store chain Iceland announced that it would stop using palm oil in its own brand products by the end of 2018, the BBC reported.

In this post from 2014, John Buchanan, vice president of sustainable production for Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, talks about why a boycott of palm oil is the wrong idea.

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.


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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.


Donate to support the production of sustainable palm oil.

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)

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Further reading


  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.

      1. Francis Knox says

        A succinct and enlightening account of a problem on which, like most important environmental issues.there is a large amount of misunderstanding and misinformation. Would it be possible
        to publish periodical (say, annual) statistics of what percentage of palm oil in Borneo
        is from virgin tropical forest and what percentage is from “degraded” (previously used) land?
        Does the Indonesian government have any financial incentives to protect the tropical forest?

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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.

    1. LyallM says

      Thanks, John. Good article. Though, I have to agree with Mike. I’ve done a fair bit of research into this (see here: https://www.sustainablejungle.com/sustainable/palm-oil-free/ and here: https://www.sustainablejungle.com/sustainable/sustainable-palm-oil-solution/) and having an RSPO or Greenpalm certification is no guarantee of the sustainability of the palm oil. Also worth mentioning is that whilst there is a growing trend of companies obtaining certification, the majority of which opt for the book and claim Greenpalm certificates. This is a far cry from truly sustainable palm oil, and in my opinion, really just marketing lip service to persuade consumers that a solution has been found. I think it should be made clear as to whether the company is obtaining the Identity Preserved or Segregated palm oil.

    1. Nell Tuero says

      Would your opinion be as “nice” if it rubbished this product? Because i do not believe unless you have been to Asia that you have any idea of the amount od destruction caused by this product. Villages have been destroyed, Plant and animal life decimated, bio culture eradicated., EVERYTHING from the humble dung bettle, to the majestic hornbill bird, primates, elephants, tigers, you name it slaughtered to make room for this vile product. As a volunteer to Borneo every year i see the damage and heartbreak as a direct result of this crop. Only small pockets of land are left as sanctuaries and rehoming Orang-utans is extremely difficult due to overcrowding. And do you relise that these PLANTATIONS home no other animal/bird life only mosquitoes and flies??

  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.”

    2. Hugo says

      I´live in Costa Rica, and I can say many of the palm oil plantations had been set in United Fruit Company abandonned banana´s plantations. Yes is a monocultive but you will have also to avoid bananas, pineapples, soja, corn, rice… because they come from a monoculture. I don´t see the problem to use land whish had been abandonned by the United Fruit Company, leting there hge social crisis and today been used to produce palm oi, providing work, dinanmizing the economy and contributing to the social security. Yes, the land scape had been destroyed ion the past, but it had been rebuild with a crop whish had enable economic and social development. THat´s don´t mean the environmental concerns still there. There are companies whish manage poorley the water usage and fibre disposal, we need to challenge them to make it in the right way: re-using, recycling, reducing methane emissions to the atmosphere.

  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.

    1. Anthony says

      Ron Peterson. There many latest information out there on the health benefits of palm oil which are cracking the myths that was loitering around the health subject. Palm oil has a balanced fatty acid profile and rich in Vit E Tocotrienols and the high content of saturated fats againts the rest of the vegetable oil makes it more stable at high temperature and dont need hydrogenation for processing and thus making it trans Fat Free.

      1. Denise Millet says

        How can we believe any information from Palm oil industries? So much disinformation and lies. Just like Canola oil which is derived from a poisonous weed. Also telling the public it is good for you.

    2. Denise Millet says

      Thanks for sharing this info. The Palm oil industry , both sustainable and unsustainable mention that it Palm oil is good for you. Unbelievable .
      I love freedom but Capitalism should not include thieves and liars. I try my best to avoid all Palm oil.
      It isn’t easy since many are not listed as Palm oil in many products. I care about life and the earth.
      The rainforests that were cut down will take centuriest to grow back if ever. This should be considered a war crime!

  14. DarkGold says

    I can see alot of the anti Palm Oil comments here are a result of subtle racism and ignorance. Thank goodness larger companies ‘poisoning’ your everyday items are seeing past this to bring out the oils true potential.
    If palm oil is so unhealthy why is it that most of the population in Asia are still walking around, free from the scary palm oil heebee jeebie diseases anti palm oil activists seem to churn out on their websites? Are us poor Westerners that fragile that we can’t compete with Palm oil resistant bionic bodies in the East? I have visited palm oil plantations and although I haven’t come across precious orang utans, I have witnessed farmland production, lush greenery and beautiful fauna amongst palm oil estates. Acres of them. Any responsible palm oil company has the sense to relocate endangered species each time they plant palm trees, something I doubt very much Western civilisations will be bothered to do everytime they swoop down on natural countryside just to build another shopping mall or set of luxury apartments. Never have I seen such a bitchy tirade against the livelihood of others as much as it is with Palm Oil. Had it been Europe or America producing palm oil there would be a stress on it’s benefits and versatility – it can be used as a bio fuel, furniture and is a renewable source as well as a base for many products. But as its a product which originated from Africa and mass produced in the Mystic East, well oh no, we can’t have that can we?

    1. Jane morris says

      There is no such thing as ‘responsible palm oil producers’ And the reason you haven’t seen any of those precious orangutangs is because the bastards who plant this stuff have gone in and killed them!

      1. Nell Tuero says

        Hi Jane, totally agree. I go annually to Borneo and see the orphaned babies after “mum” has wandered into restricted areas after her home was destroyed, only to be slaughtered herself. Heartbreaking and total environmental disaster over there.

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  16. Elizabeth says

    You mention the job market for them. Did you know though, the major companies Wilmar to be exact are actually having children as young as 8 work. Correct me if I am wrong but, shouldn’t an 8 year old be in school and not having to do physical labor or work with hazardous things. The kids are then given no choice, but to drop out of school, because they need to help out their parents due to the crap pay their parents get. Even though palm oil is in everything, pretty much we all should strongly try to avoid it. We as consumes can help by not getting things with palm oil in it we are helping the children, the animals that are almost extinct because of all the palm oil plantations taking over their homes, and lastly climate change. Just like our bodies and life we only have one world, and I’d like to know my kids and their kids will have a great world to live in.

    1. C says

      Hi Elizabeth. I completely agree with you. Palm oil is not sustainable and lands that have been cleared for its plantation must be immediately put into a restoration programs (which will take 20 years or more to recover, in any case).
      Articles like this one are misleading and show a strong conflict of interest from Conservation International on the issue.
      I am quite disappointed, by the way.
      Luckily, there are still people that think by themselves and cannot be fooled so easily. Nice try, CI.

      All the best

  17. Ken says

    Good article. Kind of utopian in my opinion. They are going to continue to cut down rain forest. I agree where it grows makes a difference, but the people who want to make a profit every three months for their stockholders are going to continue to do it the cheapest and not so legal way. I don’t care if adults don’t give a damn about our planet, but maybe they ought to think about their kids and grandkids instead of the all mighty dollar. I will revisit this topic often to see if any progress is being made or the Indonesian rain forest becomes on big palm oil plantation with a few mammoth strip mines scattered in-between.

  18. Samara says

    Good article, but I think that we are far from to really having suistainable palm plantations. So for now, if you want to help, srop buying products with palm oil, until the irreaponsable companies feel that consumers are not buying products with palm oil if it does not come from a suistainable production.

  19. lillian says

    the ones who making out with this r the manufactors of food products.they need to find a different product or grow somewhere else.the rain forest and animals r more umportant than palm oil! i dont think they care!.the bottom line is more important.

  20. Colm O'Flynn says

    One point missing in this article is the enormous risk to the human populations of dependency on monoculture. It will only take the emergence of one new pathogen (think ash die back in Europe) to destroy the palm oil economy of Indonesia and other developing countries. Where’s the safety net (think potato blight 1845-48)?

  21. Sally says

    Excellent article.There are companies like AgroAmerica in Central and South America that practice fully certified sustainable palm oil production

  22. Stickto Thetruth says

    “Groups like the Zoological Society of London and others are working to understand what species can be supported in palm landscapes….”

    So you think you should just transplant some OTHER animals there instead of SAVING the endangered species that ALREADY exist there?

    That and the FACT this was a PAID AD proves what side of the fence this entire article is meant to sway YOU.

    READER BEWARE of alternative facts!

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