What Makes Palm Oil Use So Controversial?

Greenpeace’s ‘Rang-tan: the Story of Dirty Palm Oil‘ video has been spreading like wildfire on social media these days.  Palm oil is not new to this scrutiny – almost 10 years ago, a similar video was just as popular.

What Is Palm Oil?


Elaeis guineensis, is the principal source of palm oil, an edible vegetable oil derived from pulping fruit of oil palms.


The oil palm produces two types of oil: Palm oil from the flesh of the fruit and palm kernel oil from the seed or kernel.


Since palm oil is a semi-solid at room temperature, it has a range of uses, hence why 66 million tonnes of it is produced annually – making it the most commonly produced vegetable oil.  It is a cheap substitute for many things, benefiting many industries, such as:

This daunting list makes it seem like it is everywhere.

In fact, palm oil and palm kernel oil based ingredients are found in approximately 50% of products found at our supermarkets.

According to expert, Kurt Berger,  palm oil is more cost-effective than its’ competitors (rapeseed, sunflower and soya bean oil), as it has a significantly higher yield per hectare and is a perennial crop, allowing it to be harvested all year, making the palm plant around 10x as productive as a plant like a soya bean or rapeseed.

Its’ versatility and efficiency are its’ main selling points.

Despite the fact that this substance deemed itself beneficial and more economically viable, it imposes an impending danger on the environment, and eventually, our health.

For optimal growth, palm oil plantations are grown in places where heat and rainfall are abundant all year round, in soil that is flat, rich, deep and permeable such as Africa, Asia, North America and South America.  85% of all palm oil globally produced and exported is actually from Indonesia and Malaysia.

In 2016, Indonesia produced around 36 million tonnes of palm oil and exported 25.1 million tonne, making it the world’s largest producer and exporter.  Palm oil contributes to around 1.5 to 2.5% of their national GDP and also provides employment opportunities along the supply chain.

While Malaysia produced around 21 million tonnes.


What Makes Palm Oil So Controversial?

 This is a topic that surges in the media every few years but there is a reason for that.

Palm oil production contributes to:


Deforestation, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia

Leading to loss of critical habitat for endangered species.  

Majestic creatures, like Sumatran tigers, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, Bornean Pygmy elephants (classified as endangered), Sumatran rhinoceroses and Malayan sun bears (classified as vulnerable) are all losing their homes.  A high percentage of this is also illegal logging.


Deforested land


Climate Change

The tropical peat forests being cleared and converted are key carbon sinks, because they sequester or remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  When destroyed, high amounts of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere.  This particular ecosystem stores more carbon per unit area than any other worldwide.

Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to this.


‘The climate is changing, why aren’t we?’

Air Pollution and Haze

Forests are being burned down, to clean the areas for palm oil plantations.  The burning releases smoke and CO2 into the atmosphere, which harms wildlife and humans.  Those living close to plantations have developed respiratory problems along with eye and throat irritations.


Forests being burned down



Soil and Water Pollution

Palm oil mills produce 2.5 metric tonnes of effluent (known as POME – palm oil mill effluent) per metric tonne of palm oil they produce.  POME is a mixture of water, crushed shells and fat residue – is highly polluting and negatively impacts aquatic life downstream oil palm mills.

Although the release of POME is technically regulated, a lot of untreated POME is still released and in many cases, Indonesian villagers have noticed a change and smell in their bathing and drinking water and decreased fish stocks.




Soil Erosion

Land clearing increases top-soil runoff, especially on steep slopes and at high altitudes, where oil palms are sometimes planted.  This increases flooding, which has many negative knock-on effects as well.

Soil erosion


Socio-Political Tension and Conflict

Disputes over land ownership, violation of rural and indigenous communities’ rights and unfair treatment of smallholders are quite common. Some locals are against production all together.


How Do We Know If A Product Has Palm Oil?


“Palm Oil” is not the only word for this substance, since it serves as one of the ingredients in many euphemisms for this oil.

List of euphemisms:

  • Vegetable Oil
  • Vegetable Fat
  • Palm Kernel
  • Palm Kernel Oil
  • Palm Fruit Oil
  • Palmate
  • Palmitate
  • Palmolein
  • Glyceryl
  • Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Palm Stearine
  • Palmitoyl Oxostearamide
  • Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Sodium Kernelate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate
  • Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate
  • Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Ethyl Palmitate
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Palmityl Alcohol

Look out for anything that has “palm” in it and you will have learned over half of that list.

By limiting your consumption to only sustainable palm oil, you could help protect the environment, limit climate change and save endangered species. Eventually, this will also reflect on the health of the human population.


When looking for sustainable palm oil, look out for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified products. You can read more about their certification criteria here.

CTM with R.jpg

You can simply try to stay clear of it all together, by paying more attention to labels or for looking out for labels like this, certifying that the product is palm oil/palm oil derivative free.

However, according to IUCN’s recent report, boycotting palm oil all together would most likely increase the demand for other oil crops, which will result in even more deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Banning palm oil could result in diminished efforts to produce palm oil sustainably, and an increase in land used for producing other oils (mostly soy, sunflower and rapeseed) which is likely to shift biodiversity impacts to regions where those oils are produced.

Since the land has already been cleared for palm oil production, the key to success lies in finding a way to ensure deforestation free palm oil.

2 thoughts on “What Makes Palm Oil Use So Controversial?

  1. Not to mention that it is an extremely unhealthy oil to digest and that sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate, indeed all sulphates, strip the colour from your hair. There goes your pricey dye job, or your nice natural colour.

    1. Precisely, thank you for bringing that up Laurie! That’s something we are hoping to cover in another piece.

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