Palm oil: The pros and cons of a controversial commodity


Oil palm fruit gathered at a mill in Indonesia for oil extraction

On 18 December 1591, a seven-month sea voyage from Africa to England ended when a ship anchored at Limehouse docks in London. Along with 150 elephant tusks and 589 sacks of pepper, the ship carried 32 barrels of palm oil. It is thought to have been the first arrival into Europe of what would become perhaps the most controversial plant product that is not a drug.

To say that palm oil is divisive is an understatement. To its advocates, it is a cornerstone of economic development, making efficient use of land and supporting millions of smallholders through profitable international trade. To its detractors, it is a cause of deforestation and social conflict, a direct threat to endangered species and a contributor to climate change.

With demand for palm oil rising rapidly, there is growing concern about its sustainability and awareness that some palm oil is “good” and some is “bad”.

What is palm oil?

The term covers various things we get from a species of tropical palm called Elaeis guineensis. “Crude palm oil” is squeezed from the palm’s fleshy red fruit. “Palm kernel oil” is extracted by crushing the fruit’s hard stone. Finally, many “palm oil derivatives” are acquired through industrial processes, which together accounts for about 60% of global palm oil use.

What is it used for?

Palm oil is in around half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets, everything from processed foods to cosmetics, soaps and detergents. It is also used as a cooking oil (predominantly in Asia and Africa), in industrial lubricants, in animal feeds and as a fuel – in 2018, half of the palm oil imported into the European Union was destined for biodiesel.

Where does palm oil come from?

The oil palm is native to West Africa, but it was in Southeast Asia that vast plantations first came to dominate landscapes. Today, about 86% of all palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. More than 40 other countries produce it, in far lower but fast-increasing quantities. The top producers in South America and Africa are Colombia and Nigeria.

Who are the biggest importers?

The top importers of palm oil are India (17.5% of the global total) and China (10.8%). Overall, Asia imports 53.5% of all internationally traded palm oil, while Europe takes 24.7% and Africa imports 14.1%. Other continents account for the remaining 7.7%.

Why get oil from palms?

Oil palm is something of a wonder crop. It yields 4-10 times more oil per hectare than other sources of vegetable oil such as soybeans or coconut palms. This makes it an efficient and profitable use of land. The economic value of palm oil translates into jobs, infrastructure and tax revenues. In Indonesia and Malaysia, some 4.5 million people earn a living from the palm oil industry. In Indonesia alone, another 25 million people depend indirectly on palm oil production for their livelihoods. This all means palm oil could play a big role in reducing poverty ­– if done right.

So why is palm oil so controversial?

Where to start? The palm oil rush of recent decades has come at considerable cost to forests and people who depend on them.

  • Social impacts: Palm oil production has been associated with corruption, forced evictions and land-grabbing. It has sparked conflict with local communities, including indigenous peoples. There have also been serious concerns about forced labour, child labour and violations of worker rights on some plantations.
  • Harm to forests and biodiversity: Oil palms now cover a combined area about the size of Syria, and an estimated 60% of this land was previously covered with forest. Much of this deforestation has been in Indonesia and Malaysia, destroying the habitat of rare creatures such as orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants.
  • Climate impacts: According to a recent study, replacing rainforest with oil palm plantations releases 61% of the carbon stored in the forest, mostly into the atmosphere. Each hectare of rainforest converted releases 174 tons of carbon.

How big a problem is this?

The ubiquity of palm oil and the growing demand for it highlight the scale of the challenge. Between 2000 and 2015, the global average amount of palm oil consumed per person each year doubled to 7.7 kg. Demand for palm oil is set to triple from 2015 levels by 2050, with much of the growth coming from markets with low sustainability requirements.

Shouldn’t we just ban palm oil?

No. That could have disastrous effects. It would affect the livelihoods of millions of people and would lead to even more land being used to produce alternative oils. Environmental organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature say that, instead, we need to prevent further deforestation for new oil palm plantations and focus on promoting sustainable production.

But how can we tell the good from the bad?

It is not easy, for a couple of reasons. First, many products contain palm oil but their labelling does not make this clear; palm oil derivatives with names like sodium laureth sulfate or palmitic acid are listed in the ingredients. Second, it is not easy to trace the palm oil in products back to the land on which the fruit were harvested. This makes it hard to tell if palm oil comes from plantations that have deforested land or infringed local people’s rights.

What about eco-labels?

Various schemes certify companies and/or supply chains as “sustainable” if they meet certain environmental and social criteria. These schemes use different standards and means of verifying performance, and some leave much to be desired. The strongest standard is that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is also the main certifier. However, about one-fifth of globally traded palm oil is certified by the RPSO – and it isn’t always labelled as such.

So, is certified palm oil really sustainable?

Some academics and nongovernmental organisations say certification standards and audits are too weak or, worse, that they greenwash the damage companies do. Others say that in the absence of stronger national laws and regulation, certification is the best tool for making palm oil production less harmful. All eyes will therefore be on the RSPO, which adopted a considerably stronger certification standard in November 2018 and is meeting again from 3-6 November 2019 in Bangkok.

This article was first published here by China Dialogue on 4 November 2019 and is reproduced here with permission under a Creative Commons licence.

Photo credit: Sevki79 / Wikimedia Commons

Expert insights into the past progress and vital future of environment journalism

EJN Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows, including Pierre Fitter from India, Gustavo Bonato from Brazil and Pia Faustino from the Philippines, interview a Danish wind energy executive.

Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows from India, Brazil and the Philippines interview a Danish wind energy executive (credit: James Fahn)

How do journalists who cover the environment cope with the relentless flow of depressing information? Should they strive for neutrality or become advocates for action on issues such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis? And how can these journalists stay safe when powerful forces want to silence them, and too often succeed?

These are some of the questions I posed to a distinguished panel at a recent event celebrating the 15th birthday of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), a programme created by Internews to improve the quality and quantity of media coverage of environmental issues around the world.

My relationship with EJN dates back to 2007, when I was working at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Together with colleagues at Panos, we set up the Climate Change Media Partnership, which took 40 journalists to the international climate change negotiations for a fellowship programme that has repeated every year since.

More recently, I have been helping EJN manage its Biodiversity Media Initiative and a project supporting journalists who are investigating illegal wildlife trafficking. So, I was very happy to be invited to moderate the discussion at EJN’s anniversary event.

The panellists were: James Painter, research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford; Mona Samari, a fisheries expert and independent consultant who ran an EJN project supporting journalists covering fisheries in West Africa; Navin Khadka, Environment Correspondent for the BBC World Service; and James Fahn, EJN’s executive director and a lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Among other things, we discussed whether media outlets should drop ‘climate change’ in place of ‘climate emergency’, whether biodiversity is still the poor cousin to climate change in terms of coverage, and whether media outlets are ever legitimate targets of climate change protestors.

We also talked about what ‘quality’ means in terms of environment journalism, whether or not overdramatic stories erode public faith in science, and what the future holds for media coverage of the environment.

We could have talked for hours, but had just 60 minutes to pick through these and other topics. You can watch the full discussion here:

Wanted: Climate Heroes. No experience required


There is a monster at the door and I need your help to fight it. It is a universal enemy, a threat that can connect and unite us all. It doesn’t care if you are left-wing or right, urban or rural. It is coming for us all. Defeating it is our only option.

The monster is climate change and it is already claiming lives. The slower we react, the worse it will get. Tackling it will benefit our health, our societies, our economies and our wider environment. But, so far, the response has been pitiful.

If we don’t transform the world in the next few years, we will trigger widespread misery. We have to be clear about this. But we must also be clear that is it not too late to join the fight. And that the more people who do, the faster we will slay the monster. We need a legion of everyday heroes, winning with acts large and small.

I first heard about climate change in the late 1980s, and I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and communicating about it. Part of me used to think it would all be okay, that our leaders would fix it. But they have badly let us down. So now we must step up.

Powerful forces have misled us

As we fight the climate change monster, we must not forget those who summoned it, who feed it and protect it. They are few dozen companies and their investors whose profits are built on the loss of our planetary life-support systems. They are a small number of billionaires and bad-faith politicians. They are the media outlets that played down the problem for fear of losing advertising revenue, and failed to report on the true costs to society of high-carbon businesses.

These groups have long known the problem and have actively delayed action. They knowingly misled us. For decades. They told us climate change does not exist or that human activities are not to blame. They have told us that our actions are too little or too late to make a difference. They allowed millions of us to believe we should not act.

Many people still believe that. Many others are aware but are trapped in states of shame or hopelessness and so rarely even bring themselves to think about climate change. There are many ways our minds can work against us. In a powerful article that I urge you to read, Mary Annaïse Heglar says it is time to snap out of our collective denial.

We need both individual and collective action

“In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up,” she says. “We can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.” She’s right. No doubt you have heard by now of Greta Thunberg. But if you think this young woman is going to save us, you are wrong. We will find the heroes we need looking back at us from our bathroom mirrors.

Getting involved does not imply becoming a hermit. As Max St John says, “we’re being fed — and feeding each other — a lie” that ‘now’ is as good as it gets, and that a cleaner, greener future must entail hardship. “The lie,” he says, “is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.”

Nor does joining the climate fight require great wealth. The simplest actions involve learning about climate change, talking about it and using our voices and our votes to demand change. We need a mix of personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and collective action that forces governments to hold polluting businesses to account.

What we will gain by taking action now

With public pressure and bold leadership, in just a few years we could have limitless supplies of green energy and decent jobs for those who used to work in the fossil fuel sector. We could have growing forests that don’t just lock away carbon but also support secure livelihoods and protect wildlife. We could have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution. We could have peace and equity and prosperity for all, not just those at the top of the tree.

These are things we can and must demand of our leaders. They are dreams we can summon into our waking lives. Climate change may be a monster to slay, but in fighting it now and with vigour, we can gain so much.

This is no pipe dream of utopia. It is our only viable option. Failure to address climate change fairly, productively and fast will diminish the futures of all but the wealthiest minority. They are already pulling up the drawbridge. They would abandon us in an eyeblink.

Fighting climate change is our only option

One of two futures awaits us. In one, people will look back and asked how we allowed ourselves to fail, how we allowed ourselves to destroy our only home. In the other, people will look back and hail the heroes who came together and, through acts large and small, saved humanity and the living world on which we depend.

We are at that crossroads. Whatever life may throw at us, there is one important decision before us all: do we act for the climate and a secure future, or against the climate and a secure future. It’s not really a choice. We need to start organising for — and celebrating — a new birth, not a death.

It will be hard. There will be tragic losses on the way. But not beating climate change is not an option, and the sooner we all realise that and get to work, the better. Mary Annaïse Heglar in another article I recommend, says: “We need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

The good news is that almost anyone can be a climate hero. While some people will lack the means, or have more urgent needs to attend to, most people will not and can get involved today. Here are 20 things you can do right now to join the fight. We will always need more heroes, so please share this. And let’s all team up and defeat this monster.


Related post: 20 things you can do right now to join the climate fight

This ancient biomaterial making a 21st-century comeback could change millions of lives

Across the tropics, people worked out long ago how to transform fig tree bark into comfortable cloth—the practice could even predate weaving. In Uganda, such barkcloth has served as a symbol of protest, a form of money, and the exclusive raiment of kings and queens. It has been suppressed by religion, colonialism, and war, yet the tradition has persisted. And now barkcloth has found a new life as a source of local pride, as well as in international markets for home furnishings, high fashion, and even aerospace materials. It is creating jobs, and is entirely sustainable. Continue reading

How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?” Continue reading