Noelle Tankard

Noelle Tankard
Cambridge, UK
June 08
I am a traveler and a student, an expatriated American, a coffee-drinker, a dabbler and a doodler. I believe in post-it notes and live music. Grad student at the University of Cambridge, UK.

APRIL 13, 2012 9:42AM

What's wrong with palm oil?

Rate: 1 Flag

AP and Reuters, and your favourite new source have the story: a fire in Indonesia is killing orangutans. More than two hundred are already dead  - and it's entirely possible that, within the next few weeks, the entire orangutan population of Sumatra will be dead.

So I started copying and posting lists - how to avoid palm oil, which companies use it and looking for petitions to sign.

And then someone asked me what's wrong with palm oil.

Turns out - dead orangutans are just the start of it.


Sometimes it's tough to remember what we're supposed to be boycotting. Which products are safe to consume ethically.

We can't fight all the battles.  But that doesn't mean that some aren't still worth fighting.

And I'm going to make a case for palm oil.

It's got every strike against it - wildife being killed, more greenhouse gas emmissions than gasoline, de facto slave trade of immigrant workers, pesticides, big corporations destroying indigenous communities, child labour and dead orangutans...

What else does it take?



  • The demand for palm oil is going to make orangutans extinct. And very, very soon.

Orangutans are highly endangered.

In 1900, there were (give or take) 300,000 wild orangutans. A conservative estimate in 2003 numbers them at 50,000.

In just the last decade, the population has dropped by 50% - during the same time, the land used for palm oil plantations has doubled.

Orangutans have lost 90% of their habitat and the wild populations that are left are cut off from each other, left in genetic and reproductive isolation.

Orangutans live in only two places: Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia). Borneo has lost 50% of its rainforest and Sumatra has lost more than 70%. Orangutan habitat in Sumatra is less than 6% of the original forest.

Climate change has contributed to the loss of orangutan habitat - but, by far, the main culprit is loss of environment from recent human activity. Rainforest clearing (occasionally for human settlement, sometimes for logging, but primarily for for palm oil plantations) is accelerating at a dramatic rate. At least 87% of the rainforest clearing in Malaysia since 1985 was for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, there were approximately 4 million hectares of palm oil plantation in 2002 - and the government intends to increase that to 11 million hectares by 2020.

If the current rate of palm oil industry expansion continues, orangutans will be extinct within the next decade - if not sooner.

  • Palm oil is bad for the environment.

Rainforests are cleared for palm oil plantations by burning everything down - including the peat bog below.

Not only are massive amounts of carbon released (each year, burning in Indonesia releases more carbon emission than all activity in India and Russia combined), but animals (and people) are killed in the fires the fires that grow out of control. (One fire in 1997 killed one third of the orangutans in Borneo.)

While 70% of palm oil is currently used in food (and a lot in cosmetics and household goods), there’s a growing push to use it as an alternative fuel. Sadly, once you take the peat bogs into account, it’s actually worse for the environment than fossil fuels.

  • Palm oil is bad for farmers, bad for the land,  and bad for the economy.

Rainforests have incredibly high levels of biodiversity. Palm oil plantations have incredibly low biodiversity. (Indonesia, although it’s only 1.3% of the earth’s surface, is home to 11% of the world’s plant species, 10% of its mammal species, and 16% of its bird species.)

Biodiversity isn’t just the animals that call the forest home, but the number of plant species - and the nutrients in the soil.

Burning down the forest adds nutrients to the soil - growing palm oil trees in the land soaks the nutrients back up, depleting the soil and making it useless. Farmers have to move on to fresh soil every few years. If the patch is in the middle of the rainforest, it can be naturally reclaimed within a few decades (and re-filled with nutrients) - but, as more and more land is cleared, that becomes less likely. The cleared land is less fertile - now useless.

While the palm oil plantations may be able to sit on useless land, small farmers can’t afford to - yet, they are clearing their land of edible crops and planting palm oil in record numbers - only to starve after a few years.

Share-cropping programs, which lend money to farmers to buy supplies to begin growing palm oil trees - which do not bear fruit for 7 years. The high start up costs and the chemicals and fertilizer mean that farmers rarely manage to earn back enough money to pay the debt and are left in worse poverty than they began.

Palm oil has come to monopolize the industry and infrastructure in Indonesia and Malaysia - a highly precarious economic situation, particularly as they abandon other agricultural crops and the ability to feed their own citizens.

  • Palm oil is bad for the local communities.

Plantations are notorious for poor working conditions: chemicals, children, and long hours. Immigrants from other countries are brought in to work (often illegally, sometimes by force).

Human rights abuses aren’t restricted to the plantations, either.

“Plantations are often forcibly established on land traditionally owned by indigenous peoples, and plantation development has repeatedly been associated with violent

In Indonesia, between 1998 and 2002 alone, nearly 500 were reported as having been tortured in community land conflicts and dozens killed. (An estimated 5 million more indigenous people will be evicted from their land by 2010 in West Kalimantan.)

  • Palm oil is bad for you.

Forget the geo-political and environmental repercussions - here’s a reason that might actually manage to get Westerners to boycott palm oil: It makes you fat.

Palm oil is a highly saturated fat - unlike most vegetable oils.

Saturated fats are bad for you: they increase cholesterol, are a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, and contribute to Type 2 diabetes.

While some saturated fat is necessary in the diet, palm oil isn’t being used to replace traditional saturated fats (from meat and dairy) - it’s being used in lieu of traditional vegetable oils, which are generally unsaturated (and healthier) than palm oil.


Assuming you have to be a consumer (I'm doubt that there's a jungle island left anywhere in the entire world that could get you out of international capitalism - but don't let me keep you from trying!), and assuming that you'd at least like to be ethical - as much as you can afford to - it's complicated.

I compromise as much as anyone. (Fair trade chocolate and coffee, free range eggs - I manage that much. Gap and Nike and Nestle are still on the bad list, as far as I know. I tried to avoid anything Coca-Cola - but have you seen the list of companies they own? It's impossible. I've got friends who give me dirty looks for buying fruit from Israel but I need citrus juice in December in England, damn it. And as much as I'd like to, I really can't afford free range meat - not until I graduate, at least.)

Just one product you can avoid. Just one thing to scan labels for. Just one stand to take against, this year.

If there's one - it's got to be palm oil.


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Noelle, I knew that palm oil is a bad fat from the standpoint of controlling cholesterol. All the rest is new to me, and very informative. We'll continue to avoid it.

Don't feel too guilty about not being an absolute environmental purist. None of us is pure, and absolutisms of any kind can be dangerous. We do what we can. r
yeah... another related issue is hydrogenated oil....