Palm Oil: Are we eating away tropical rainforest?

Production of palm oil, found in everything from cookies to shampoo, is the main drivers of tropical deforestation in Indonesia, threatening the home of the endangered orangutan. If the development of oil palm plantations continues as scheduled, the rainforest of Indonesia stands to further lose an area the size of Wales by 2020.


A wonder crop

Palm oil is a crop with multiple uses, found in everything from margarine, cereals, cookies and shampoos to biofuels. Almost 50%(!) of all package goods sold in grocery stores contain palm oil, which is derived from pulping the fruit of oil palms. All though oil palm can be considered a “wonder” crop due to it´s many uses and qualities, like taste less flavour and long-lasting abilities, it is one of the main drivers of deforestation in tropical rainforests. 

Unstoppable world demand

The world consumption of palm oil is now more than 60 million tons annually, a 75% increase in the last decade (2016-numbers). More than 85% of this palm oil is grown in the rainforest-rich countries Indonesia and Malaysia, and in Indonesia alone, the area of palm oil plantations has increased with 600% since 1990, covering more than 8 million hectares – an area twice the size of Denmark. Since the Indonesian government has pledged to double the oil palm production by 2020 to meet extended global demands, reaching 40 million tons, oil palm plantations are projected to cover 12 million hectares by 2020 according to UNDP. The increasing world demand is unlikely to be met by a limited supply any time soon, as 65% of Indonesia´s forests (over 60,000,000 Ha) is considered suitable for oil palm production - an area greater than France - and thus are in risk of being converted by the expanding industry. 

Destroying tropical rainforest in the process

The goal of Indonesia´s government is to spur economic development and rural employment by becoming the greatest palm oil (and pulpwood) producer in the world, and by 2006 this goal was reached, producing over 16 million tons annually. The transformation into being the top world producer of palm oil is happening on the expense of tropical rainforest and its inhabitants, as more than 50% of oil palm expansion in Indonesia (and Malaysia) took place through the conversion of forest land according to a study made by Koh and Wilcove in 2008. Increased world demand of various commodities is pressuring the remaining rainforest area accordingly, with Indonesia losing a rainforest area almost the size of Corsica (> 1 million Ha) every year. The direct environmental costs of agricultural expansions are enormous, making the country home to the greatest number of endangered mammals in the world, including the Bornean orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Sumatran elephant (all critically endangered). In total, it has been estimated that 80 per cent of rainforest species disappears, when forest is converted into oil palm plantations. 

A difficult consumer choice

 The power to change the current development rests in the hands of us all - as consumers. We can change the production process by buying products from companies, who have committed themselves to sustainable production through certification and a no-deforestation policy. Currently, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the best available certification scheme for consumers that wants to make a sustainable choice and RSPO is endorsed by several of the greatest oil palm producing companies. The amount of RSPO certified palm oil has consequently increased by more than 300% since 2010, reaching a 11% share of global oil palm by 2014 (Palm oil research, 2016).

Unfortunately, the RSPO certification scheme is not perfect yet. Even though companies with RSPO certification are not allowed to cut down forest to make new plantations, they can still use already degraded forest for plantations, and this is an area that needs to be improved in the certification scheme. But when this area is improved, buying sustainable palm oil is the best solution since oil palms are the highest yielding oil-seeding crop, reducing the need of vast areas for alternative oil-seed production in a world of continued demand.

What can you do more?

Save the Orangutan is protecting and restoring the orangutans home by re-planting trees on deforested and degraded lands. Read  here how you can help make a difference by supporting Save the Orangutans rainforest program SOS Borneo.

What can you do?

A EU directive requires that palm oil is visible in the ingredients list on foods from the December 13th 2014. This will enable you as a consumer to actively decide whether you want to buy products containing palm oil. You can buy certified palm oil (RSPO) produced with respect to rainforest protection. You can also support the NGOs like Save the Orangutan that work to influence authorities in the palm oil-producing countries to demand sustainability from the industry.


Quick facts – palm oil

Origin: West Africa

Lifetime (in plantations): 25 years

Annual yield: 3.5-5 tons per hectare

World consumption: 61.57 million metric tons a year

Oil palm production (Indonesia): 32 million metric tons a year

Oil palm plantation area (Indonesia): > 8 million hectares

Loss of rainforest due to oil palm (Indonesia): > 4 million hectares (the size of Denmark)