Problematic Palm Oil
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
It was thought that, like plastic, palm oil was positive progress into our modern world. But we know from our current and potential plastic crisis, things aren’t always as good as they seem.
From the increase in media attention and importance of using sustainable palm oil in our food and cosmetic products for example, that our usage of this resource needs to be addressed as it unfortunately, has more negative Climate impacts than the positive progress that was believed.
Palm oil is a diverse resource with a high melting point, low cost and the highest yield of any oil crop, which has lead to its rapid increase in production over the last few decades. For example, the yield of soy oil is 0.4t/ha; coconut, sunflower ad rapeseed oil is 0.7t/ha; whilst palm oil is a much greater 3.3t/ha. It’s diversity has lead to it being found in foods, laundry detergents, cleaning agents, cosmetics, animal feeds and biofuels. It’s semi-solid at room temperature which means it’s perfect in spreads; it can give products a longer shelf life; the high melting point means that it can also be used in fried and baked products; it’s also doesn’t effect the look or taste of food products. As a result, palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth, which means it’s in high demand, causing it to have devastating effects on our environment.
The majority of palm plantations are found in tropical climates, as oil palms need constant high and humid temperatures. There are 44 countries that produce palm oil, with Indonesia and Malaysia making up over 85% of the global supply. Tropical rainforests are suffering greatly from deforestation in order to provide timber, land for grazing cattle and growing soy – 80% of which is used for animal feed across the world. Palm oil production is in fact the third leading cause of deforestation globally (see Damaging Deforestation for more detail on methods and effects). There is however, a major difference between palm oil deforestation compared to the other top causes. This is not necessarily the deforestation itself, but the land in which it happens – peatland.
SO, WHAT IS PEATLAND?
Peatland is crucial in the fight against Climate Change and as such, we really can’t afford to be removing it at any rate. Peatlands are a type of wetland and are one of Earths’s most important ecosystems – ‘In these areas, year-round waterlogged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat. Over millennia this material builds up and becomes several metres thick.’ As well as providing for both nature and humans, they can also be classed as integral parts of both the global water and carbon cycles, due to the size of store and influence they carry. They are a natural defence as they can minimise flood risks, increasing the risk of droughts. However, they can also increase flood risks – these are crucial areas and cannot cope with change. Across the world peatland is the largest natural terrestrial store of carbon (see Our Earth’s Carbon Cycle for more on stores), holding approximately 550 Gt of carbon, 42% of all soil carbon. These are integral in our Earth’s Ecosystems and Climate.
In tropical regions, this peatland is drained along with the removal of the rainforest that sits on it. These rainforests are removed through selecting logging and/or slash & burn (see Damaging Deforestation for more on deforestation). Burning the forest causes habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, and effects the water and carbon cycles – effects are amplified through the burning; burning trees releases carbon dioxide and the fires can get out of control and spread, causing more damage. In addition, the large amount of organic matter making up the peatland can burn for months, even after rain and whilst covered by snow, thus releasing more carbon dioxide after the trees and other vegetation. Once drained, carbon can also be lost by the water in the peatland- losses through water increase by 50%.
In Sumatra and Borneo, there are extensive amounts of degraded land that are available to be repurposed into palm oil plantations. This is not as ideal as regenerating the land back to forest and peatland forest, but it removes the need for further destruction. Unfortunately palm oil companies can generate a profit by using selective logging to remove timber on a fresh area of land and then burning the land, something that’s particularly damaging simply because of the land it’s on.
The conversion of one hectare of peatland rainforest in Indonesia releases up to 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide. At an average absorption rate of 22kg per year for one mature tree, it takes approximately 247,414 trees one year to remove 6,000 tones of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – that’s 247,414 trees for every one hectare of peatland rainforest removed. Indonesia is home to 36% of Earth’s peatland and its forests store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon Rainforest, but is the leading global palm oil supplier by a large margin. This is why the level of deforestation here particularly, is a problem – most of Indonesia, or at least the forests that are removed, sit on peatland. In 2018, the total land used for palm plantations in Indonesia was 12.8 million hectares, with 4 million hectares alone in Sumatra, Western Indonesia, which is an area the size of Switzerland.
All across the globe where the natural world is destroyed, wildlife and plants have to deal with the destruction and adapt. With the creation and expansion of plantations, rainforests are being dissected at an alarming rate and plantations are reaching deeper into the forests – the rainforests and peatlands of Indonesia are ‘among the world’s most species-rich environments’ which are home to many endangered plants and animals, some of which we know all too much about. Orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Bornean rhinos are amongst the most threatened.
Orangutans are particularly vulnerable and as a result, are now associated with palm oil. They are dependent on large contiguous forest areas, however deforestation creates forest and habitat fragmentation, which is particularly devastating for orangutans. As the forest is split and has pockets of smaller areas of untouched areas, there isn’t any way for orangutans (though this stands for all wildlife) to reach other members of their species; they may too get separated from family – they can simply be cut off. When looking for food, orangutans will venture into plantations and often end up getting lost. In these smaller areas, they are regarded as pests by the farmers. As a result, their lives are in danger as soon as they cross the border. At least 1,500 orangutans were inhumanly killed by palm oil plantation workers just in 2006, according to the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP).
Despite the possible thought that palm oil plantations may not be as damaging as cattle grazing and growing soy for example, it’s clear that they are, maybe more so when comparing primary impacts. The palm oil plantation monocultures have a low biodiversity level, even before it’s compared to the rich rainforests that once stood in their place – not forgetting the carbon release, drainage, and general removal of peatland, one of the crucial elements to fighting Climate Change. But we cannot overlook that among others species, orangutans are being driven to extinction simply as a result of our lifestyles.