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Palm Oil and Deforestation Facts

by Meaghan Weeden November 20, 2023 3 min read

Palm Oil Deforestation
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How Palm Oil Is

Palm Oil has been getting a lot of attention lately as it is a primary driver of deforestation in tropical countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Read on to get  a quick overview of the story behind palm oil deforestation and the major players involved.

WHAT is palm oil?

Palm oil (elaeis guineensis)is a vegetable oil that is extracted from palm oil trees and has many commercial uses, ranging from edible vegetable oils and personal care products to biofuel and more.  There are actually two different types of oils that can be extracted from from palm oil trees. Crude palm oil is produced by processing the flesh of the palm oil fruit. Kernel palm oil on the other hand, comes from the kernel of the fruit. 

Palm Oil TREE: where does palm oil come from? 

Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) trees are a tree species native to eastern Africa, as the region offers the best conditions for the oil palm to flourish. 

Today, oil palm is also grown throughout Asia and in some parts of North America and South America — in areas that, like Western Africa, get a ton of rain. In fact, 85% of palm oil today is grown and produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

palm oil fruit

WHAT is palm oil used for?

Today, palm oil can be found in an extensive range of products, everything from prepackaged cookies and chocolate, to cosmetic and beauty products like lipstick and deodorant.

Similarly to coconut oil, palm oil is semisolid at room temperature and is a staple cooking oil in many parts of the world, especially Africa and Southeast Asia.

Palm oil's widespread use is likely tied to its low production costs, as oil palm trees are a very efficient crop (high quantities of palm oil can be produced for small land areas). Not only that, but palm oil is naturally resistant to oxidation, which means it can help to extend the shelf-life of many products.

Palm tree

Palm Oil and Deforestation

The demand for oil palm end-products has increased rapidly in recent decades, establishing its as a ubiquitous ingredient in 40-50% of household products. In fact, it can be found in everything from baked goods and ice cream to cosmetics, cleaning detergents, air fresheners and toothpaste.

Because of this, it's estimated that around 50 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, accounting for over 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production. In fact, the average US, Canadian, Australia, and UK citizens consumes over 10kg annually!

But the production of this very useful product comes with a price, as the environmental impacts have become apparent. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has declared that oil palm production is a major driver of deforestation and habitat degradation. 

As a result, concerned environmentalists are asking that we boycott unsustainably grown palm oil — and the products that contain it. 

palm oil tree

Sustainable Palm Oil

Sharon Smith, campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), urges companies to source sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil. If enough companies do this, it will eventually transform the entire supply chain, reducing the amount of environmentally destructive palm oil that shows up in our food.

  • Does not contribute to deforestation
  • Isn’t grown on deforested peatlands
  • Does not violate human rights

These simple requirements will pressure oil producers in the major oil palm producing countries to provide a better product. Notably, multinational food giants like Kellogg, Hershey, Nestle, and the Delhaize Group, which are some of the largest palm-oil consumers, are already demanding better practices in an industry known for burning forests and violating human rights. In turn, two of the world's largest palm oil suppliers—Golden Agri-Resources and Wilmar—have made similar commitments for the palm oil they sell, which is great! However, other companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald's, Proctor & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive aren't quite as committed to making sure that the palm oil they buy is traceable, deforestation-free, and peat-free.

We will continue to keep an eye on this topic and update you as new developments arise. Feeling bummed about all of the unsustainable palm oil you've inadvertently consumed? Check out our blog post on how to adopt a more sustainable diet and consider planting a tree with us today!

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Meaghan Weeden
Meaghan Weeden

Meaghan works to share our story far and wide, manages our blog calendar, coordinates with the team on projects + campaigns, and ensures our brand voice is reflected across channels. With a background in communications and an education in environmental conservation, she is passionate about leveraging her creativity to help the environment!