Problems with Palm Oil + New Solutions

March 29, 2023
by Anna Eyler

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Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees and is known for its versatility. It’s popularity comes from its relatively long shelf-life, stability at high temperatures, semi-solid state at room temperature (making it good for keeping spreads spreadable), and lack of color or flavor. It also brings higher yields over smaller areas of land compared to other oils.

Did you know that palm oil is used in almost 50% of all packaged food you find at the grocery store? It’s in frozen pizzas, toothpaste, chocolate, shampoo, deodorant, and more. It is also used in animal feed and as biofuel in many places.

Unfortunately, palm oil has negative effects on the environment and people. We’ll explore its impacts and the potential scientific and policy solutions that may alleviate some of palm oil’s problems.

Environmental Impact

Over 85% of the global palm oil supply is coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. Old growth forests are cut down to clear land for growing oil palm trees. Habitat loss in Indonesia due to clear cutting forests has pushed many species – including the Sumatran elephant, orangutan, rhinoceros, and tiger – to near extinction.

Native forests are also carbon sinks; cutting them down means that they will no longer absorb atmospheric carbon. Most oil palm trees are planted on peatlands, which consist of soil formed from thousands of years of organic matter accumulation. These peatlands are drained and burned before oil palm trees are replanted, releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It is difficult to slow the deforestation from the palm oil industry, because many forested areas are being cleared illegally. In Indonesia, about 81% of land cleared to produce palm oil was done illegally.

Human Impact

Indigenous people living in the palm oil plant range – 10 degrees north and south of the equator – have used these forests to supply their food and building materials for thousands of years. Having these important resources taken away from them, many indigenous people have been forced into poverty and hunger.

Palm oil plantations are notorious for labor rights violations. Workers on these plantations are often underpaid and exposed to dangerous conditions, including toxic pesticides. There are also many instances of child and forced labor.

Scientific Solutions

Many companies are creating a synthetic alternative to palm oil using microbes in order to avoid some of its worst environmental consequences. One company, Xylome, was attempting to create a low-carbon fuel using a genetically-altered strain of yeast. They realized the yeast produced an oil very similar to palm oil. They are continuing to explore ways to scale this microbial oil production to make it as cost-effective as traditional palm oil.

Another company, Kiverdi, is using carbon-capture technology to manufacture yeast oil. C16 Biosciences recently opened a new lab in New York City to create a microbial palm oil alternative. The lab was backed by $20 million from Breakthrough Energy Ventures – Bill Gates’ climate solutions investment fund.

Policy Solutions

During the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), a group including the U.S., Britain, and Norway, along with some major corporations, introduced the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) initiative. The initiative aims to create a carbon credits international marketplace to stop deforestation. LEAF started off with $1 billion in pledges to start the program.

U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) is planning to introduce legislation that would require companies importing palm oil and other commodities linked to deforestation to know more about the origins of their goods. They would need to prove they know where the commodity came from and show that it was produced according to the laws of the country it originated from. This legislation could encourage more transparency in the industry to improve labor conditions and reduce illegal deforestation.

What You Can Do

Avoiding all products containing palm oil is practically impossible, especially since the oil is often listed on the ingredients list as “vegetable oil,” “vegetable fat,” or other scientific names like sodium dodecyl sulfate, glyceryl stearate, sodium isostearoyl lactylate, elaeis guineensis, and more. An easy way to find out if your favorite snacks have palm oil is by googling them or contacting the company that makes them. If your snacks and other products have palm oil, contact the company to encourage them to stop putting palm oil in their products. Demanding change from these large corporations is one of the best ways to make a positive impact.