Much of the destruction of orangutan habitat in East Asia is due to a demand for palm oil. Palm oil is an ingredient in many products, and can be found in 50% of grocery store merchandise, including many snack food brands, but its little-known environmental impact is devastating to the populations of many species, including the Sumatran tiger and Asian elephant to name just a few. New oil palm plantations are constantly needed to keep up with its constantly increasing use in everyday products, and to make room for such plantations, rainforest is burned and destroyed, and this process destroys extremely biodiverse, valuable rainforest. When plantation workers burn what remains of the rainforest, small fires can escape the destructive region and damage healthier areas of Borneo, spreading the negative impact of plantations.
Palm oil also has a negative effect on the global climate. Rainforests and peatlands are valuable carbon sinks, and burning such areas releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. As if this isn’t enough, human rights abuses, including child labor, ridiculously difficult targets, inadequate protection from chemicals, nonexistent health services, and even modern slavery are prevalent on oil palm plantations.
Palm oil is so commonly used for two reasons: first, it is cheap and easy to obtain; second, it is trans fat free, which is used by many snack food companies as a brag. However, palm oil’s unhealthy saturated fats rank it as one of the worst oils for your heart, and that cheapness comes from illegal rainforest destruction and worker exploitation.
There are several certification programs for palm oil production, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and GreenPalm, but none fully wipe out rainforest destruction, climate change, or human rights abuses. If you see a label advertising sustainable palm oil, the product still most likely has an impact on the rainforest. But you can help save the orangutan through your choices at the grocery store.