So What's the Problem with Palm Oil?


Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree.  These palms originate from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant.  Today, palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America, and South America, with 85% of all palm oil produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia.  With 54 million tonnes produced each year, it is the most widely produced vegetable oil worldwide.


Its properties make it highly versatile in the food and chemical industries and around 50% of the goods we use every day contain palm oil including 71% of our foods, 24% of consumer products and even 5% of our energy.


Unfortunately this comes at a huge cost to the environment and, according to a report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Program, palm oil plantations are currently the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia.  It is estimated that an area of rainforest equivalent to 300 football pitches is being destroyed every hour.


Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are among the world’s most species-rich environment’s and home to numerous endangered plants and animals including orangutans, who are particularly vulnerable because they are dependent on large forest areas. 90% of Sumatra’s orangutan population has disappeared since 1900 and, according to the UN, there is a risk that no wild orangutans will remain outside of protected areas by 2020.


Palm oil plantations also threaten forest peoples.  A single plantation can destroy the forests, watersheds, and forest resources of thousands of Indonesians, leaving entire forest communities to face poverty.


Palm oil plantations may also contribute to climate change. Rainforests are the earth’s largest sinks of carbon, safely storing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.  It is estimated that tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.


So what can we do?


Avoiding products containing palm oil is the most obvious thing that we can do, but this is easier said than done as it is often listed simply as ‘vegetable oil’.  Ruth Valerio from A Rocha has suggested a number of options:

  • Look out for products that contain alternative vegetable oils, such as 100% sunflower oil, corn oil or rapeseed oil;

  • Avoid heavily-processed food as that’s where palm oil is mostly used;

  • Buy toiletries and cosmetics which specifically state they contain no palm oil.

Or, alternatively

  • Avoid palm oils unless it’s from a sustainable / fair-trade source.For example Traidcraft is sourcing its palm oil from small-scale farmers in Ghana who are working with nature rather than destroying it.Traidcraft also says that by focusing on smallholder farmers and low-tech processing, benefits will go to some of the poorest farmers in West Africa.Further information is available at


Anne Waite

on behalf of the Eco-congregation working group