Palm oil is a globally-traded edible vegetable oil derived from the oil-rich red fruit of certain types of palm trees. This valuable oil is used in the production of many different products that are currently on the market, such as cooking oil, foods like cookies and chocolates, cosmetics, and biodiesel fuel.
Due to an increasing demand for palm oil worldwide, there are growing concerns about many of the negative environmental impacts of palm oil production.
Deforestation and greenhouse gases
The majority of the palm oil produced in the world today is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. While a lot of this production has occurred on previously-established agricultural land, there has also been a lot of land clearing to make way for the establishment of new palm oil plantations. The most concerning have been rainforest habitat and peatlands that have been cleared for this purpose.
Indonesia’s rainforests are extremely biodiverse, representing approximately 10% of the world’s plant species, 12% of the world’s mammal species, and 17% of the world’s bird species. It is now estimated that only about half of Indonesia’s rainforests remain, and that more than 2.4 million acres are currently being lost every year. Palm oil production has now become one of the primary causes of rainforest destruction around the world today, much of it occurring in virgin forests.
Peatlands are a type of wetland, where the soils are composed of decomposed vegetation (peat). This peat serves to help soak up water and to prevent flooding. Peat also represents a large store of global carbon. As the peatlands are drained to make way for palm plantations, the decomposed vegetation further breaks down, releasing carbon dioxide emissions and represents a major source of global greenhouse gases. As the peat dries out, it becomes highly flammable, leading to an increased risk of fires.
Loss of critical habitat and biodiversity
As palm oil demand increases, palm plantations are increasing on a massive scale, and native forests are being cut down across the landscape. This has led to the loss of important habitats for many different plants and animals, and as well as pushing many species towards endangerment of extinction, such as the Sumatran Orangutan, tigers, elephants, and rhinos.
Other impacts on plants and animals include the elimination of wildlife corridors that connect populations, an increase in human-wildlife conflict, an increased vulnerability of wildlife to being hunted or captured for the pet trade, overall reduction in biodiversity on palm oil plantations, and exposure to poisons that are intended to kill rats on palm oil plantations.
When forests are cleared to establish palm oil plantations, the uncovered soil is left vulnerable to erosion. Soil erosion also occurs when trees are planted in rows up and down hillsides instead of being planted on contours, the incorrect construction of roads, and the establishment of plantations and infrastructure on steep slopes.
This erosion is costly to local governments when flooding occurs. The silt must be dredged from rivers and ports, and valuable tax revenue is lost due to the negative impacts of sediments on local fisheries.
When forests are burned to make way for palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, the smoke generated by these fires has led to a major increase in air pollution throughout much of these two regions, including in Singapore and other cities. Once peat is set on fire, it can burn for many months both aboveground and underground.
Although the practice of burning has now been outlawed in Malaysia and Indonesia, it still occurs illegally in certain areas within these two countries.
Soil and water pollution
The processing of wastes from the palm oil industry leads to freshwater pollution.
It has been estimated that 2.5 metric tons of effluent are typically produced for each ton of palm oil that is processed. When this effluent is directly released into freshwater bodies, it can negatively impact biodiversity and people downstream.
Indiscriminate use of agricultural chemicals on palm plantations can also lead to the pollution of surface and groundwater resources, and also to the soil.
When tropical peatland forests are drained and are converted into palm oil plantations, such forest conversions are a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is because they store humongous quantities of organic matter, which are a large global source of carbon.
It has been estimated that up to a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the destruction and degradation of forests around the world[sc:5]. The burning of these forests releases carbon dioxide emissions, significantly contributing to climate change.