The Environmental Costs of Palm Oil Production

In my Biology class in 2016, I was assigned a to write a research paper about a biological or ecological study, research, or issue. I chose to write about the environmental costs of palm oil production. My final version was included in Student Papers in Biology. Here is a citation of my work:

The environmental costs of palm oil production. Pp 2-8 in D. F. Whitacre (Ed.), Student papers in biology, Volume 4: Spring 2016.

Following is the version appearing in Student Papers in Biology.

The Environmental Costs of Palm Oil Production

You’ve probably seen palm oil on an ingredient list. And although palm oil is one of the main ingredients in our food, it is also fuel for habitat degradation and global warming. It turns out that more than fifty percent of food in a typical grocery store contains this oil. And due to palm oil production, rainforest is being destroyed in the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

Palm fruit is best grown in plantations, vast expanses of land covered with palm tree after palm tree. Palm oil is a natural oil formed from the fruit of palm trees. It is used by humans because this particular oil contains no trans (or artery-clogging) fats and is supposedly healthier than other, similar oils like canola oil or soybean oil. Overall, palm oil demand has gone up since we began using palm oil (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007). From 1970 to the present, annual palm oil demand increased from about 2 million metric tons (MMT) per year to over 50 MMT. This oil is very versatile and appears in items from milk to soap to biofuels. In the grocery store, it may also appear as palmitate, palm kernel oil, sodium laureth sulfate, or stearic acid.

Palm trees are natural, yet like other plants we have learned to “farm” them in large, extensive monocrops called palm oil plantations. Because palm trees are suited best for tropical environments, plantations are mostly located in the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. As oil demand has gone up cultivated area has increased as well. The countries of Malaysia and Indonesia are the primary world producers of palm oil (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007).  The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are very supportive of palm oil production as it provides jobs and homes for their people, yet the president of Brunei, a country on the island of Borneo, cannot tolerate palm oil plantations.

Although palm oil is a great source for homes and jobs, the land used to harvest it was rainforest- that is, before it was burned down to “make room” for plantations. “Oil palm Elaeis guineensis is grown across more than 13.5 million ha of tropical, high-rainfall, low-lying areas, a zone naturally occupied by moist tropical forest, the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem on Earth” (Fitzherbert et. al., 2008). Palm oil farmers cannot use already cultivated and abandoned area due to the characteristics of rainforest soil. Soils of the rainforest are known as oxisols which means they are “heavily leached and poor for agricultural activity” (Tarbuck and Lutgens, 2006).

It is true that palm oil does not contain trans-fats, but it does contain saturated fats, which are also unhealthy (Amerman, 2015). As a result, palm oil is worse for your heart than similar oils other than coconut (Amerman, 2015). In fact, it raises cholesterol levels in the blood (Amerman, 2015). This versatile oil is worse for your heart than it is good (Amerman, 2015).

The people of Indonesia and Malaysia need jobs and homes, and palm oil plantations often provide both. Although palm oil plantations are horrible for rainforest biodiversity, they directly provide jobs for over half a million Borneans (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007).  Palm oil plantations also serve as villages and provide housing for employees and their families (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007).

Fifty percent of the species on Earth live only in the rainforest (Pelletier et. al., n. d.). Many rainforest species are becoming endangered and threatened, and maybe even extinct. Take an example: the orangutan. Historically, there were four subspecies of orangutan: the Sumatran orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, the Javan orangutan, and the Chinese orangutan. The last two of these subspecies have been wiped out, the Javan orangutan clearly because of deforestation. And if we don’t end the palm oil crisis, we are likely to see the other two go as well.

The island of Borneo has amazing biodiversity, yet we are destroying it with each plantation. Before introduction of palm oil plantations, biodiversity was higher.  We know of eight species that have gone extinct due specifically to palm oil farming – four vascular plants, three mammals and one bird species (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007). But because we don’t really know the full extent of biodiversity it is likely that additional species have been driven to extinction. The problems with palm oil production include carbon emissions, species extinction, habitat loss and fragmentation, and probablyeven loss of species that we have not even discovered.

Palm oil “is assumed to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions” (Reijnders and Huijbregts, 2006) when oil palm-based biofuel is used in comparison to other fuels such as petroleum. But with every tree burned in order to make room for oil palm plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere. This carbon is partly responsible for keeping the Earth warmer than it should be. For every plantation, tens of thousands of trees are burned, much carbon is released, and Earth gets a little bit hotter.

One hundred forty six species of mammals in Borneo are listed as threatened. Many additional species are listed as endangered.  The orangutan is one of these endangered species. Orangutans are endangered mostly due to habitat degradation, partly by logging but mostly by palm oil plantations. Orangutans are one of five extant species of great ape and the only ones to live only in East Asian rainforests. The orangutan is an arboreal great ape and the species’ existence allows us to study how the ancestors of humans may have behaved when most of Africa was still rainforest. Orangutan conservation is better for the long term, but palm oil production supplies us for the short term (Nantha and Tisdell, 2009).

Although many animals in the Bornean rainforest are losing their homes, there are sustainable solutions. For example, we can grow palm oil in Florida, which some companies already do. We could harvest other kinds of oil from different sources grown in different places. Palm fruits could be harvested directly from naturally growing trees in the rainforest. “Non-governmental organizations could generate funds to preserve land and improve the livelihoods of local communities” (Pin Koh and Wilcove, 2007). The sustainable palm oil movement takes into account the first idea – growing palm trees elsewhere where the damage to the environment is reduced. There are several companies that have pledged to the Sustainable Palm Oil Movement, such as Nestle and Endangered Species Chocolate.

But there are problems with these solutions, such as:

“Poverty threatens the survival of the poorest. To appeal to them to join in saving the planet is pointless unless we link it to their own survival. Simply to tell those at the margin of existence not to cut down the forest or not to have many children when they see both as necessary to their survival is to be not only insensitive to their predicament but also downright provocative” (RSPO 2003 in Schouten and Glasbergen 2011).

One thing that we can do is ignore unsustainable palm oil-using products in the grocery store, and the companies that produce these products. If word is spread, we can encourage some grocery stores to give up selling some of these products which slightly reduces the product demand from such companies. It may be a challenge to find palm oil on food labels (especially with its many aliases) but several organizations, such as the El Paso Zoo and others, have developed Internet-accessible applications that scan barcodes in the store to determine if an item contains palm oil. These apps include Palm Oil Guide & Scanner, POI, and PalmSmart.

There are also several websites that advocate for orangutans and the destruction caused by palm oil use. These include and, as well as,,, and These websites take action on the issue and ask viewers to help preserve the rainforest.

Palm oil, a versatile substance that appears in everything from soap to milk to biofuels, is destroying the rainforest with every ounce. It is time to take action and solve this problem. Although palm oil is a supposedly healthy substance, we are fueling degradation and global warming with every drop we consume.

Work Cited

Amerman, D. “What Are the Dangers of Palm Oil?”, 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Fitzherbert, E., M. Struebig, A. Morel, F. Danielsen, C. Bruhl, P. Donald, and B. Phalan. “How Will Oil Palm Expansion Affect Biodiversity?” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23.10 (2008): 538-45. Web.

Nantha, H. S., and C. Tisdell. “The Orangutan–oil Palm Conflict: Economic Constraints and Opportunities for Conservation.” Biodiversity and Conservation Biodivers Conserv 18.2 (2008): 487-502. Web.

Pelletier, Suzanne, Christine Halvorson, Tom Bewick, Alexandra Zobel, Viviana Briseño, Carlos Gomez, Wendy Pineda, Margoth Quispe, Cameron Ellis, Chipamung Chowdhury, Abigail Swint, Nolan Ferar, and Ishaan Pujari. “COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS AND FACTS.” Rainforest Foundation US. Web. 08 May 2016.

“Common Names for Palm Oil and Palm Oil Derivatives.” Philadelphia Zoo. Philadelphia Zoo. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. <;.

Pin Koh, L., and D. S. Wilcove. “Cashing in Palm Oil for Conservation.” Nature 448.7157 (2007): 993-94. Web.

Reijnders, L., and M.A.J. Huijbregts. “Palm Oil and the Emission of Carbon-based Greenhouse Gases.” Journal of Cleaner Production 16.4 (2008): 477-82. Web.

Chandran. “Closing Address by Mr. Chandran MPOA RT1.” RSPO Closing Address. Address.

Schouten, G., and P. Glasbergen. “Creating Legitimacy in Global Private Governance: The Case of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.” Ecological Economics 70.11 (2011): 1891-899. Web

Shean, M. “Indonesia: Rising Global Demand Fuels Palm Oil Expansion.”Indonesia_Palm_Oil_Oct2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Tarbuck, E. J., and F. K. Lutgens. Earth Science. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997. Print.

“Borneo Rainforest And How It Is Being Destroyed In The Name of Humanity’s Endless Consumption.” Tropical World. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. <;.

“Heart of Borneo.” Heart of Borneo. World Wildlife Fund. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

3 thoughts on “The Environmental Costs of Palm Oil Production

  1. Pingback: The Quest For The Rainforest: A History of My Motivation to Create Change Via This Blog – The Orangutan Gang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s