Perils of Palm Oil

By Makenna Adams

Lipstick, instant noodles, and shampoo—these items share one common ingredient: palm oil. Native to South America and West Africa, palm oil is the most used and consumed oil in the world. Most packaged items sold today contain palm oil, and its rapid growth threatens areas of the world with the most biodiverse and endangered habitats. 

The type of palm from which palm oil is harvested is called an oil palm. Oil palms grow exclusively in the tropics and require much more water than the average plant. Palm oil plantations once were native only to South America and West Africa, but now also litter the tropics in Papua New Guinea, parts of Asia, Kenya, as the palm oil industry has expanded. Palm oil harvestation requires the deforestation of massive acreages of sensitive tropical rainforest. Mostly unregulated, the destruction of these forests has resulted in the loss of irreplaceable and biodiverse-rich forests. Plantations also destroy the habitats of endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans. 

While palm oil plantations ruin the lives of every animal in the environment they take over, one animal that is particularly vulnerable is the orangutan. Orangutans, who make their homes directly in the palms, are considered pests and are intentionally killed instead of relocated; deforestation in the palm oil industry is the leading cause of orangutan extinction. Palm oil-related processes kill an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans every year—a significant portion of the threatened orangutan population. 

Not only does deforestation obviously destroy the trees in which species make their homes, but the heinous act also destroys the soil of affected areas. Erosion, chemical imbalance, and hardening of soil makes regrowth on the deforested land close to impossible. Furthermore, air pollution from smoke devastates deforested land, as developers use fire to clear the land. Consequently, countries with large palm oil exports, like Indonesia, stand as the largest contributors of carbon to the world’s atmosphere.

Palm oil is nearly impossible to avoid—from beauty products to your favorite snacks, manufacturers rely heavily on the dangerous substance. Yet, in turn, manufacturers rely on consumer demand. If individuals act proactively, by stopping their purchases of products containing palm oil and speaking out against the corrupt industry, we can keep the perils of palm oil at bay.