The Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil Production

 Palm oil fruit on a production farm

Did you know that palm oil has various benefits and is the most widely consumed plant-based oil worldwide? It may sound surprising to many because if you were to look in the average household's pantry, you probably wouldn't even find a bottle of palm oil. However, if you look on the back of half the packaged foods in a supermarket, you'll find palm oil, or a derivative of palm oil, on the ingredient list.

You may wonder what palm oil is used for in those foods and what that means for the environment. Those are valid questions since palm oil’s sustainability and how it is made are controversial topics that are gaining the attention of many environmental activists. So is palm oil bad for the environment? Does palm oil truly have benefits? In today’s article, we will answer these questions and more as we take a closer look at the palm oil industry.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil primarily harvested from the pulp of the African palm tree fruit (Elaeis guineensis). It is naturally reddish-orange due to its high beta-carotene content. The African palm tree was introduced to Malaysia and Indonesia as a decorative plant, but now they produce up to 85% of the world’s supply. To a lesser extent, palm oil comes from the South American palm tree (Elaeis oleifera). 

Farmers cultivate red palm oil throughout Brazil, Africa, and Asia. Palm oil may offer numerous benefits. However, it should not be confused with palm kernel oil that’s harvested directly from the kernel, not the fruit, of the palm tree. Further, palm oil is not coconut oil that comes from coconut palm trees.

Palm tree

What Is Palm Oil Used For?

Palm oil's popularity has grown in recent years due to its versatility and the plant's high yield. It is relatively cheap to manufacture compared to other vegetable oils. Plus, its utility extends beyond food. You can even use red palm oil for your skin and hair and you can also find it in other products.

What products use palm oil, you ask? Here are some of them:

  • Biodiesel
  • Cosmetics
  • Margarine
  • Shampoos
  • Bath soaps
  • Instant noodles
  • Washing detergents
  • Packaged bakery goods, like bread and muffins
  • Packaged sweets like ice cream, chocolate, and cookies

Palm oil’s benefits and long shelf-life after hydrogenation make it a highly desired product used by the food manufacturing industry. On an agricultural level, it produces the highest yield per acre than any other plant-based oil. Hence it's hard to see what's not to love about palm oil. Except there's a catch:

The History Of Palm Oil

Palm oil's origins can trace back thousands of years to West Africa. Archaeologists have even discovered casks of palm oil buried within Egyptian tombs! During the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans caught wind of palm oil's benefits and versatility. Therefore, they began trading it internationally. 

The British used palm oil as an industrial lubricant for machinery and as a base in soap and candlestick making. They didn’t care whether palm oil was bad for the environment.

Then they discovered palm oil's utility as an edible, nutrient-rich cooking oil! After learning what palm oil is used for, this product rapidly became popular. More people learned how palm oil is made, and its commercial trade value increased. Money poured into Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. Technology improved the manufacturing of edible refined oils, causing large-scale production and investments in palm oil plantations to rise rapidly. 

Despite palm oil's benefits and economic value, this unruly growth period caused significant environmental damage. And herein lies the catch:

The Environmental Impacts Of Palm Oil Production

Palm tree forest

Palm oil's popularity has spurred a rapid increase in monoculture plantations, causing severe environmental impact (source). If you’re wondering how palm oil is bad for the environment, look at some of its resulting damages below.

Habitat Destruction

In recent years, there has been a direct link between the palm oil industry and the habitat destruction of many endangered species. Growers turn tropical forests into palm plantations to harvest the plant and its oil. These large-scale conversions lead to the loss of critical habitats for many endangered species. 

Despite palm oil's benefits for humans, its production has devastating implications for animals. The loss of habitat forces them into smaller areas that endanger their survival. Most noteworthy is the plight of the orangutan. Palm oil production also threatens the habitat of birds, elephants, and tigers, leading to less biodiversity. 

Deforestation

No matter what palm oil is used for, its production causes the mass destruction of vital rainforests. This deforestation is most evident in Indonesia, where cultivators have cleared half its native rainforests to create plantations. 

Widespread deforestation across countries like Borneo, Indonesia, and Malaysia adds more fuel to the fire, revealing how convoluted the industry is despite palm oil's benefits. Growers create plantations in dense rainforest regions where the palm tree naturally thrives. Unfortunately, the costs to the local environment and its native animal inhabitants are insurmountable. 

Pollution

The way palm oil is made also causes pollution. Burning forests to clear land for palm cultivation is a source of air pollution. These fires release smoke and carbon dioxide that pollutes the air and has hazardous consequences for those who inhale them. 

Palm oil is bad for the environment because it leads to soil and water pollution. While these plantations don’t use too many pesticides, they can still introduce waste to the environment and damage the soil quality of the area. Palm oil mills also generate significant amounts of effluent they release into the water. 

Soil Erosion

While palm oil has benefits, its production contributes to soil erosion. Soil erosion happens when the upper layer of land wears away. Deforestation and cultivating plants in the wrong areas accelerate this process and lead to damaging consequences.

Soil erosion increases flooding and destroys fertile land. It increases sedimentation in the rivers and pollutes the water, killing fish and other aquatic animals.

Climate Change

Despite what palm oil is used for, its production contributes to climate change and global warming. As we already mentioned, burning rainforests to clear land for cultivation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the primary greenhouse gases responsible for climate change as it traps heat and changes the earth’s temperature.

 

Another way palm oil production doesn’t benefit the earth’s climate is by removing carbon sinks like the tropical forests in Indonesia. These forests can help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and balance the ecosystem. 

Human Rights Violations

How palm oil is made is sometimes inhumane. In countries where palm tree plantations thrive, labor costs are cheap, environmental laws are lacking, and political agendas favor the largest paycheck (source). This political corruption, human rights abuses, and illegal loggings make this industry unethical in most cases.

Despite palm oil's benefits, it's understandable how most people want to take no part in supporting such an industry after learning of its harmful effects. It becomes necessary to take a deeper look into more sustainable choices.

Is Sustainable Palm Oil Possible?

Acknowledging that palm oil production is bad for the environment is not enough. Authorities must do something about it. Governments established a certification body known as the RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – to address the palm oil industry's issues. So what is sustainable palm oil? In a nutshell, sustainable palm oil is one with the lowest negative impact on the environment. 

The RSPO’s certification is for consumers who know what palm oil is used for and want to ensure they purchase a product that follows a higher and more rigorous set of standards. 

Yet even at this point, RSPO-certified growers comprise only around 18% of the industry. Today the RSPO principles, criteria, and indicators extend far beyond conserving primary rain forests while reaping the benefits of palm oil. They require a comprehensive, independent social and environmental impact assessment, which includes:

  • Mitigating negative impacts on soil
  • Preventing further loss to primary forests
  • Promoting biodiversity in the local region
  • Ensuring human and labor rights are respected
  • Conserving other natural environments in the region
  • Avoiding further habitat destruction of endangered species
  • Developing water- and energy-efficient production methods
  • Fair-trade agreements for employees, farmers, and their families
  • Legal compliance and preventing conflict regarding rights to use of land

Why Cook With Palm Oil?

A man pouring palm oil into a pan

Despite the bad reputation of how palm oil is made, it may be a very healthy cooking oil as long as it's not hydrogenated and unrefined or minimally processed. Minimally processed, unrefined red palm oil may offer numerous benefits as a high-heat oil that doesn't go rancid quickly. Here are some of them: 

High in Healthy Fats

No matter what palm oil is used for, it may deliver a high amount of healthy fats and phytonutrients to the body. The fatty acid composition of unrefined, minimally processed red palm oil is also distinctively different from other vegetable oils. It has 50% saturated fats, 40% unsaturated, and 10% polyunsaturated fat (source). 

While coconut oil is considered the number one oil for its high content of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA – the fat your body can burn easier), red palm oil may be the next best oil you can find in this regard. It contains about 50% MCFA.

Rich in Vitamins and Antioxidants

Another benefit of red palm oil is that it’s rich in vitamins and antioxidants. It contains more vitamins A and E than other plant oils (source). Red palm oil is also high in carotenoids that the body can use to make vitamin A. This supply of carotenoids may help people avoid vitamin A deficiency. 

Plus, as much as 70% of the vitamin E in palm oil contains tocotrienols. Tocotrienols belong to the vitamin E family and may act faster as antioxidants to keep the cells safe.

Better Brain Health

Unrefined red palm oil's benefits also extend to the brain. Studies show that vitamin E and tocotrienol in this oil may protect the brain tissue from free radicals better than other antioxidants. The polyunsaturated fats in palm oil may also slow the progression of dementia and prevent lesions from forming in the brain. 

Better Heart Health

What many don’t know is that unrefined red palm oil is also used for better heart health. Studies show that vitamin E and other compounds in this oil may help reduce heart disease by affecting its risk factors. Reportedly, palm oil may lower bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol levels. A meta-analysis of 51 studies showed that people’s cholesterol levels benefited more from palm oil than any other type of oil. 

Meet Wildly Organic’s Sustainable Palm Oil

While the production of most palm oils is bad for the environment, Wildly Organic's red palm oil is not. Wildly Organic sources red palm oil from an RSPO-certified company based in Ecuador. 

Their producer in Ecuador works with over 150 small farms to develop more environmentally-conscious practices. The way palm oil is made in this company addresses all the issues within the palm oil industry. Their investment in research and developing more sustainable practices has raised their farming standards to some of the highest in the world.

What Makes Wildly Organic’s Palm Oil Different?

Wildly Organic's red palm oil is sustainably sourced, RSPO-certified by our supplier, and minimally processed to preserve the nutritional qualities of red palm oil. With us, you can experience authentic palm oil with benefits like:

  • Pleasant and Neutral taste.
  • Remaining stable when used for cooking.
  • Containing more beta-carotene, vitamin E, and tocotrienols than any other oil (source).

Learn more about our palm oil’s top qualities and what it is used for:

Unrefined

One of the most important things to consider when purchasing palm oil is to ensure it is cold-pressed and minimally refined. Conventional palm oil is highly processed and hydrogenated, which oxidizes fats. Damaging the fats in this way increases peroxide formation (source). This chemical reaction negates the health benefits of palm oil and can cause inflammation in your body.

In contrast, Wildly Organic's red palm oil is processed within hours of harvesting to ensure freshness and quality second to none. Red palm fruit is handpicked by farmers transported by doney-drawn carts to the mill where it will be pressed. The fruit is steamed at 200ºF to help release the oils before they are cold-expeller pressed. 

Longer Shelf-life and More Vitamins

After harvesting the sustainable palm oil source, manufacturers press the plant. The oil is left to rest. The saturated fat solidifies and falls to the bottom of the vat. Then they decant the top liquid portion to remove the free fatty acids. As a result, this helps to extend the oil's shelf-life and preserves the rich reddish-orange color. It will also retain more fat-soluble vitamins of palm oil that offer various benefits.

Nutrient-rich and Organic

Additionally, our organic palm oil is non-GMO, Palm Done Right, habitat-friendly, and non-hydrogenated. It’s also not processed with a solvent such as hexane and doesn't contain trans-fatty acids. Furthermore, Wildly Organic's red palm oil is high in oleic acid; a mono-unsaturated fatty acid also found in olive oil.

Your Guide to Cooking With Palm Oil

Wondering what our palm oil is used for? Here are some recipes you can try:

Shop Other Sustainable Products From Wildly Organic

So is palm oil bad for the environment? Not with Wildly Organic! We monitor how our palm oil is made to ensure it’s sustainable and environment-friendly. In addition to sustainable red palm oil with loads of benefits, Wildly Organic carries various other healthy and minimally-processed products. 

Take our Popcorn Oil, for instance. It is very much like a butter substitute. However, it doesn't have hydrogenated oils. Instead, it's a stable cooking oil that makes buttery yellow popcorn!

We also carry a collection of organic raw nuts and raw cacao products you can try. Our high-quality foods are non-GMO, perfect for any diet, and delicious! Shop now and get free shipping on +$49 orders. 

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


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