Updated: Sep 13, 2021
When the food industry in the 1990s began using palm oil on a large scale, it was a healthy and humane alternative to animal fats like butter and Uji. Palm oil today is often synonymous with environmental and ethical issues due to intensive production in some parts of Southeast Asia (which many of you might have known already). The problem of palm oil comes with constant global demand and willingness to supply developing countries, regardless of any environmental impact. This versatile vegetable oil has turned into an environmentally harmful substance.
Where is palm oil from?
Palm oil is a vegetable oil that comes from the fruits of oil palm trees. The most widely cultivated oil palm variety native to the west coast of Africa is Elaeis guineensis Jacq.1, also known as African palm. Today, it is cultivated in many tropical countries around the world to meet global demand, raising questions about this.
Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, followed by Malaysia, both of which account for 84% of the world's palm oil production. Recently, palm oil production has increased in South America via Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala.
So how does Palm Oil affect the environment?
Today, oil palm agriculture is undoubtedly the biggest and most imminent threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. This is due to the large-scale clearing of tropical forests to yield roads to palm plantations. The change to forest farms threatens the health of the entire ecosystem. This leads to loss of biodiversity, risking the survival of certain species affected by dramatic changes in habitat.
Critically endangered, the Bornean orangutan will probably be the most notorious ale of animals heavily affected by palm oil production. Bornean orangutans inhabit the forests of Borneo, which are shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Between 2000 and 2018 Borneo lost 6.3 million hectares of forest. Of these, 39% were logged to create new oil palm plantations. Many animals, including orangutans, have been restored to adjacent forests. Rehabilitated animals may not be able to adapt to the new environment due to competition with existing inhabitants. Animals remaining on the farm are known to damage oil palm crops. , Experience conflicts with farmers concerned about loss of income. Sumatran elephants, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran tigers and other ill-advised forests are on the verge of extinction.
Another problem caused by deforestation is air pollution. The technique used to cut out this forest is called "bare burning". The method is to cut a tree and burn its debris to create a clean field. Hazes occur that burn several hectares of forest at a time. It is an atmospheric phenomenon in which dust and smoke cover the transparency of the sky. The production process itself also contributes to pollution. The wastewater generated during the production process is called palm oil factory wastewater (POME). It emits large amounts of greenhouse gases and needs to be treated before they are emitted. If not treated, POME will be released into ponds and rivers, endangering the lives of fish and waterfowl.
So in short, can Palm Oil be sustainable?
In other words, the answer is 'no. Palm oil production will continue to affect tropical biodiversity. Scientists are working very hard to find new ways to reduce the environmental impact of this crop. However, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to produce palm oil (or other agricultural products) without affecting biodiversity in any way. But scientists agree we have the power to improve palm oil production and make it more sustainable. We hope this will minimize the impact of palm oil production on biodiversity.
How about you? What do you think about using palm oil?
"Palm oil to blame for 39% of forest loss in Borneo since 2000: study.” Reuters. 2019. Accessed 12 April 2020.
"Orangutans Are Hanging on in the Same Palm Oil Plantations That Displace Them”. Scientific American. 2020. Accessed 13 April 2020.
"Endangered species threatened by unsustainable palm oil production”. World Wildlife Fund. 2020. Accessed 12 April 2020.