You may not know much about palm oil, but plenty of people are talking about it. There are some serious implications regarding the production of palm oil and its use by millions of people. The environmental effects of palm oil are staggering, but what is this mysterious substance and why is it so controversial?
Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, with around 66 million tons produced annually. It’s derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree and can be found in everyday products like food, cosmetics, animal feed, pharmaceuticals, and industrial products. Palm oil is so popular because it’s cheap to produce, has a high melting point, and contains almost no trans-fats, which makes it excellent for cooking.
The rising price of petroleum has encouraged the export of palm oil biodiesel to the European Union and the United States. Biofuels are plant-based solutions to fossil fuels, using fermentation and chemical reactions to break down molecules in plants to be refined and used as fuel. Until recent years, biofuels were produced from sugarcane and other plants, but recently biodiesel—the palm oil variant of biofuel—has become popular because of its low cost and the easy availability of palm oil.
Palm oil’s ubiquity and utility has led to the deforestation and habitat loss of the world’s most valuable and biodiverse regions: the rainforests.
Oil palm trees flourish in the humid, tropical climates of Latin America, Africa, and especially Southeast Asia. More and more palm oil plantations are being created by bulldozing through large areas of rain forest to make room to grow these trees—to date, these plantations take up 40.6 million acres of land and are the leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia. This destruction harms already vulnerable populations, including local animals and plants, as well as native peoples who rely on these forests for their livelihoods. Numerous critically endangered species like the Sumatran orangutan, Borneo elephant, and Sumatran tiger reside in these areas, putting them at even greater risk because of habitat loss and increasing the possibility of contact with poachers.
Trees contain vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which is released in alarming quantities into the air when they’re cut down. Converting one hectare of rainforest land into palm oil plantation land releases 174 tons of carbon, most of which will head upward as carbon dioxide. Areas of swampy land known as peat soil prevent fallen vegetation from decomposing, accumulating carbon dioxide as a result. Peat acts as a massive storage vessel of carbon dioxide and is vital to reducing carbon emissions and counteracting global warming. Unfortunately, the waters from these swamps are drained to make room for palm oil plantations, which releases the trapped carbon dioxide into the air. Additionally, the extensive use of fertilizer in this type of farming depletes natural minerals from the soil, leaving the ecosystem with less organic matter to serve as natural fertilizer and restore biological activity.
The palm oil industry is vast and incredibly lucrative. Nevertheless, spreading the message of the deleterious environmental effects of palm oil is having an impact on global farming practices and creating a culture that values sustainability.