/ 4 July 2021

Palm oil: Useful but destructive

Deforestation Continues In Sumatra
Cheap and nasty: A plantation worker harvests palm oil fruits on Sumatra Island, Indonesia. More than 73-million tonnes was used in 2020, far more than other vegetable oils. Photo: Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

Palm oil is found in almost 50% of the food products in supermarkets and has become one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss. According to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), palm oil grows best in low-lying, wet tropical areas — exactly where rainforests grow naturally.

Clearing palm oil plantations has led to widespread rainforest destruction and peatland degradation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, where most of the world’s palm oil is grown. Increasing global demand for palm oil has also fuelled expansion in other parts of Asia, Central and South America, and Central and West Africa.

The world’s most produced, consumed and traded vegetable oil is found in cosmetics and foods such as pizza, doughnuts and chocolates. Indonesia is increasingly selling it as a biofuel for vehicles and electricity generation in the West, but it produces three times the emissions of fossil diesel, according to Nithin Coca, in China Dialogue, an independent nonprofit on environment and climate news. 

Jonathan Robins, author of Oil Palm, a Global History, says palm oil is cheap and the African oil palm can produce up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soybeans.

But, the oil has yet another dark side. In his recent article in The Conversation, Robins said it “entered the global economy in the 1500s aboard ships in the transatlantic slave trade”. In the 1900s Africans refused to provide land to European companies because it was profitable for them, so oil producers used coercion and violence to get labour. They also went into Southeast Asia because colonial governments gave them land to establish plantations and used cheap migrant labour. 

Abusive labour practices persist in Africa and Asia.

The WWF says palm oil is a major driver of the deforestation of biodiverse forests and peatlands, destroying the habitat of vulnerable and threatened species such as orangutans, tigers and African elephants.

“The expansion has occurred at the expense of the rights and interests of … plantation workers and discrimination against smallholders have cast a shadow over the sector”.

Robins says the IUCN argues that changing to other oil crops may need more land to grow substitutes. 

He argues that “small-scale agroforestry techniques, like those historically practiced in Africa and among Afro-descendant communities in South America, offer cost-effective ways to produce palm oil while protecting the environment”.

 Chris Gilili is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa