Palm oil: we all play a role

Is our insatiable desire for snack food destroying the world’s forests? Learn all about the problems with palm oil. We all play a role, everytime we go to the grocery store.

Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the oil palm tree and makes its way into about 50 per cent of packaged items on supermarket shelves.

Take a peak in your kitchen cupboards and if you have any kind of processed or snack food, from crackers to chips to chocolate to peanut butter, instant noodles and biscuits, there’s a good chance it contains palm oil.

Palm oil makes its way into about 50 per cent of packaged items on supermarket shelves.


It’s probably in your freezer, too – check your ice cream, pizza and desserts.

And it’s definitely in the cleaning products under your sink.

Shampoo, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals also contain palm oil, although it may be disguised under other names, including:

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, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.

Palm oil is a lucrative business – the most productive oil crop in the world – and accounts for 65 per cent of all vegetable oil traded internationally, with  90 per cent sourced from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The problem comes from unchecked oil palm expansion into some of the world’s last remaining tropical forests. 

High yielding, highly versatile, low in trans-fats and cheap to produce, palm oil is not in itself a bad thing; the problem comes from unchecked oil palm expansion into some of the world’s last remaining tropical forests. Deforestation is directly linked to global warming, which affects us all.

While boycotting palm oil is not the answer, demanding that it is sustainably grown might be.

You can view the WWF list of products that contain palm oil here.


Image by Rainforest Action Network (Flickr).

So, how exactly is palm oil destroying forests?

Each year land is cleared in Indonesia using traditional slash and burn techniques. It’s illegal, but it’s quick, easy and cheap. Primary forest is often clear-felled for its valuable timber first – as converting forest land is far more profitable than planting on degraded land.

Two million hectares of Indonesian forest up in smoke, exacerbated by El Niño last year.


Last year, with severe drought conditions caused by El Niño, fires in Indonesia’s Borneo and Sumatra burned out of control for weeks, sending two million hectares of forest up in smoke. Entire regions of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia were covered in a murky toxic haze, and more than 500,000 people hospitalised with respiratory illness. Heavy rainfall in November put out many of the fires, but forests are still at risk.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo surveys the devastation after the fires in Borneo in September, 2015.


Although around half of all deforestation in Indonesia is linked to palm oil, paper/ pulp, and timber companies, there is no single culprit for the fires.

Susan Cheyne, a director of OuTrop (Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project) comments, “The fires are started by individuals clearing land for small farms, as much as by big corporations clearing land for plantations such as oil palm … all must play their part and work together to reduce the risk and impact of these fires in future years.”

As global demand for palm oil increases, we as consumers also have a role to play, and perhaps need to ask: is our insatiable appetite for snack food directly contributing to global warming?

What's the relationship between carbon-rich peatlands and global warming?

It is well known that rainforests act as the lungs of the planet, absorbing carbon dioxide, and releasing life-giving oxygen. We know, too, that felled trees release greenhouse gases.

But did you know that greenhouse emissions released by clearing tropical forests skyrocket when it comes to carbon-rich peatlands? These swampy forests form in areas where frequent flooding saturates soil and prevents organic matter from fully decomposing.

The average amount of carbon stored in one hectare of peat is equivalent to greenhouse gases released in one year by 1,551 passenger vehicles in the Unites States.

More than half of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in Indonesia, and act like a giant sponge, holding at least 20 times more carbon than nearby lowland forests. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average amount of carbon stored in one hectare of peat is equivalent to greenhouse gases released in one year by 1,551 passenger vehicles in the Unites States.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Though palm oil plantations represent a limited proportion of global deforestation in terms of area, they are a disproportionately large source of global warming emissions because they are often established on land converted from swamp forests.”

In recent years, almost a fifth of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia has taken place on peat swamps, and as last year's forest fires blazed, Indonesia’s monthly emissions beat the US – an economy that is 20 times bigger. The fires alone are estimated to account for about 3 per cent of all global greenhouse emissions caused by human activity in 2015.

The rapidly shrinking peatlands and lowland forests of Indonesia are also home to critically endangered orangutans, tigers and elephants, who face a perilous future. 

What about the orangutans?

Millions of orangutans once roamed the forests of South-East Asia. These days they can only be found in small pockets of Borneo and Sumatra, including protected conservation areas, which were badly ravaged by the fires. Three-hundred-and-fifty fires alone were recorded in Borneo’s Sabangau Forest, home to the worlds largest population of 7,000 orangutans. Photographs of rescue workers emerging from the smoke carrying terrified, starving orangutans slung across their shoulders, filled the pages of social media.

Borneo’s Sabangau Forest is home to the worlds’ largest population of 7,000 orangutans, including this fella.


Conservation groups are still trying to assess how much life was lost, but existing figures paint a grim picture for the future of the great red ape. According to the Orangutan Project, during the past decade the orangutan population in the wild has decreased by approximately 50 per cent. While close to 8,000 orangutans died during Indonesia’s fires of 1996/97, which burned over 11 million hectares. 

Sharing 97 per cent of our DNA, these endearing creatures make a compelling mascot for saving the forests, but orangutans are just the tip of the iceberg. Known as a cornerstone species, they play an important role in forest regeneration through the fruits and seeds they eat. If orangutans become extinct, there will be a knock-on effect on many other species.

Paying to protect our forests

At the 21st UN climate summit in Paris December last year, 196 delegates signed an historic agreement to combat climate change, recognising that ending tropical deforestation  is crucial to reducing global warming. The importance of forests and REDD+ (an acronym for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has been on the negotiating table for years, but the Paris Agreement is momentous in that it recognises that saving and restoring tropical forests is an international responsibility.

Industrialised countries such as UK, Norway and Germany have pledged $US 5 billion to REDD+ programs, essentially enabling them to pay countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to protect their forests. 

What is the Indonesian Government doing?

Lauded as a reformer, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a series of decrees in November 2015 banning the clearance and conversion of carbon-rich peatlands, and declared areas burnt by fires must be restored with natural vegetation – not planted with oil palms.

Indonesia has lost more than 50 per cent of its forests in the last few decades and reforestation programs have been met with little success. It now has more than 10 million hectares of oil palm plantations, with many more planned.

Palm oil is a huge economy earner for Indonesia and is the livelihood for millions of its people.

While international companies face increasing public pressure to grow sustainable plantations, some say it’s the smallholders, who have little to gain financially, who will have the most trouble converting.

The establishment of the Peatland Restoration Agency, announced by President Joko Widodo in January 2016, may address this, as one of its main tasks is to educate local residents on sustainability and reaping the benefits of their surrounding peatlands. 

While Indonesian law holds companies responsible for fires, violators have rarely been brought to justice. Of 176 companies accused of starting the devastating fires in 1996/1997, 133 were oil palm plantation companies. Only five were brought to court and of these, just one was convicted. In a landmark case in 2014, palm oil company PT Kallista Alam was found guilty and ordered to pay fines of US$26.6 million for illegally burning forest in Aceh, Sumatra. 

What about local communities in Indonesia?

In January 2015, a group of citizens filed a class action lawsuit against the Aceh government over its development plans, which would leave the pristine 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem – deemed one of the world’s most precious biodiverse rainforests – open to destruction.

Mongabay reports that, “Dozens of palm oil companies have already received permits to operate in Leuser.”

Also in January 2016, Leonardo Di Caprio’s foundation announced a grant of US$15 million for environmental protection, $3.2 million of which is directly allocated to protecting the Leuser Ecosystem.

Leonardo Di Caprio’s foundation announced a grant of $3.2 million to protect Indonesia's peatlands.


Wildlife groups such as The Orangutan Project, Borneo Orangutan Survival, and OuTrop also work closely with local communities to run valuable education programs, help develop agribusinesses, and rescue and rehabilitate orangutans.

Since last year's fires, OuTrop have planted hundreds of saplings on burnt areas to restore peat-swamp forest in Indonesia.


Immersed in thick haze, many Indonesians took to social media to vent their frustration and grab the attention of the world.

“These devastating fires galvanised communities and individuals. Never have the issues of peat fire and sustainable management received this much attention,” says Susan Cheyne of OuTrop, which works to protect the tropical forests of Borneo.

Their teams were on the frontline fighting last year’s fires, and Cheyne reports that as of January 2016, they have planted hundreds of saplings on burnt areas. “Successfully restoring a peat-swamp forest is not an easy task! But from small seeds, big things grow!”

The long road ahead for sustainable palm oil

There are many ways that palm oil can be grown sustainably, starting with planting on degraded land. Attitudes in the industry appear to be slowly changing, especially for companies with international exposure, but there is a long road ahead.

As of 2015, 188 companies have made commitments to supporting sustainable palm oil, 61 of which have pledged zero deforestation policies.

Forty per cent of palm oil producers are now members of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), set up in conjunction with WWF to promote the use of sustainable palm oil.

While it’s a step in the right direction, many conservationists claim it’s just not enough. Problems with accountability mean a company can be a member without actually sourcing sustainable palm oil.

A number of companies also signed the 2014 Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge for ‘deforestation-free, sustainable palm oil’.

Meanwhile in 2010, Unilever, one of the biggest buyers of palm oil in the world, launched their Sustainable Living Plan, with an aim for all palm oil to come from traceable, sustainable certified sources by 2020. 

So, how do we protect people's livelihood and the planet?

What can we do as consumers?

In 2014, 18 per cent of the world’s palm oil was certified sustainable. However, for sustainable palm oil to become a real solution, there must be a genuine demand for it. Conservation groups encourage people to write to their supermarkets, sign petitions and get active on social media, and to let their preferences be known through the products they buy.

According to Richard Zimmerman, founder of Orangutan Outreach, which works with many conservation groups, “The key to all this is awareness. So many people around the world have no idea it's even happening. We need to wake people up.”