Palm oil is everywhere. It’s in the food, cosmetics, shampoo, cleaning products, and washing detergents we buy, and even in the fuel we use. It accounts for over 30% of the total vegetable oil produced globally and, due to its commercial importance, the production rate is set to increase.
Why then, might you ask, is palm oil production a problem?
Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) (Fig. 1). Although native to south and southwestern Africa, this tree species can grow in most other tropical countries with a humid climate. After the commercial value of palm oil was recognised, oil palm plantations were established across Africa, America, and Asia. This directly resulted in extensive deforestation across large areas of land. Oil palm plantations currently cover over 27 million hectares of land worldwide. In Malaysia, 94% of deforestation occurs as a direct result of establishing oil palm plantations. With deforestation a major contributor to climate change and also a main cause of habitat degradation and species loss, it is clear that this level of forest destruction cannot continue.
Habitat and species loss
Together, Malaysia and Indonesia produce 85% of the world’s palm oil. The consequences of this level of production are directly felt by the animals that rely on the natural forest habitat to survive. The orang-utan in particular has faced extensive habitat loss, with over 50,000 individuals killed as a direct result of deforestation (Fig. 2). The orang-utan is vital for the regrowth and development of tropical rainforests, with some tree seeds only germinating after passing through the gut of an orang-utan. Reducing palm oil production would protect these charismatic primates, and many other tropical animals, from extinction.
The current methods of palm oil production result in the vast exploitation of carbon-rich ecosystems. When these areas are cleared, large amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Indonesia is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas output and in 2009 deforestation accounted for 30% of their total greenhouse gas emissions.
What can be done?
It is clear that palm oil plantation expansion cannot continue at the expense of biodiversity. Alternatives are being sought, and they are proving effective. The University of Bath is developing a yeast-based alternative to palm oil, produced using waste materials from sustainable sources. Efforts are also being made to establish plantations on less carbon-rich ecosystems, such as grasslands.
You also have the power to prevent palm oil plantation expansion. By seeking palm-oil-free products, you can help reduce the impact of deforestation on the orang-utan and many other critically endangered animal species. You can follow these simple tips and even take a 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge to do your bit as a consumer. Together, we can say no to palm oil.
 Saynotopalmoil.com. (2016). [online] Available at: http://www.saynotopalmoil.com [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].
 Rainforest-rescue.org. (2016). Palm oil – deforestation for everyday products – Rainforest Rescue. [online] Available at: https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].
 Wilcove, D., and Koh, L.P. (2010). Addressing the threats to biodiversity from oil-palm agriculture. Biodiversity and conservation, 19 (4), pp. 999-1007.
 World Resources Institute (WRI). (2013). CAIT 2.0. Washington, DC. Available at: http://cait2.wri.org/historical/Country%20GHG%20Emissions?indicator=Total%20GHG%20Emissions%20Excluding%20Land-Use%20Change%20and%20Forestry&indicator=Total%20GHG%20Emissions%20Including%20Land-Use%20Change%20and%20Forestry&year=2012&sortIdx=NaN&chartType=geo/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].
 Corley, R.H.V. (2009). How much palm oil do we need? Environmental Science & Policy, 12 (2), pp.134-139.