Palm Oil Is in Everything, and It’s Hurting More Than the Orangutans
By Helen A. Lee
We cook with it. We bathe with it. We use it for mood lighting. Palm oil is an ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, hygiene products, biofuels and candles; experts estimate it's found in 50 percent of the items on grocery store shelves. Inexpensive to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has a high melting point, making it versatile and easy to spread. The result: increasing demand. In 1996, global production totaled 16 million metric tons. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.
But there's a problem. Palm oil may not cost much to produce, but it exacts a high price on the environment. And thanks to this often-invisible ingredient's complex international supply chain, efforts to reduce that impact are proving challenging.
From Virgin Forest to Grocery Store
The story of palm oil begins with clearing tropical rainforests and peatlands for plantations of oil palm trees, which thrive on warmth, sunlight, and copious rainfall. The trees — native to West Africa — produce clusters of orange-red fruit year-round, and can be harvested every 10–14 days when mature. For the most part, oil palms don't need much help, but some farms do use herbicides and insecticides. Oil palms produce 3.8 metric tons of oil per hectare annually — eight times as much as soybeans (.5 t/ha), and almost five times the yield of canola (.8 t/ha).
Palm fruit contains oil in its flesh (palm oil), and its seed (palm kernel oil). At diesel-powered mills, fruit and kernels are pressed to extract oil. The next stop is often a refinery, where bleaching improves the oil's color, deodorization reduces its smell, and "fractionation" can create different oils suited for different purposes. Then, the oil is shipped all over the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says palm oil is the most consumed oil in the world, and its non-food uses are also increasing. India, China, Europe and Pakistan are the top importers, collectively using more than half of the global supply. In Asia, it's used in home cooking. In Europe and the U.S., most demand comes from manufacturers for everything from Oreos to toothpaste. You can find it in Silk soy milk, Secret deodorant, Nutella, Jergens lotion, instant noodles and Girl Scout cookies.
Palm Oil and Environmental Devastation
Malaysian and Indonesian plantations make up about 85 percent of the industry, with Guatemala, Benin and Thailand among the other top producers. Areas with low wages and abundant labor often welcome palm plantations — despite the industry's history of slavery, child labor, and land-theft — because of their potential to lift workers out of poverty.
Around the world, the business of palm oil harms the environment. During conventional cultivation, forests are cleared for plantations, bringing biodiversity loss, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat destruction affecting many species, notably the orangutan. A recent International Union for Conservation of Nature report notes that 50% of all deforestation on Borneo between 2005 and 2015 was driven by palm oil development.
This deforestation also contributes to climate change; the conversion of forests to palm oil plantations releases carbon dioxide that had been absorbed by old-growth forests. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2013 that 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation.
These impacts have proven hard to combat, in part because palm oil is rarely the end commodity. Richard Zimmerman, executive director of New York-based non-profit Orangutan Outreach, calls it a "pervasive yet hidden" problem. Given all the chemicals, sugars, fats, and allergens shoppers are already trying to avoid, he said, "Palm oil is low on the list, if it's even on the list."
Palm oil and its derivatives appear under a multitude of monikers, from "palm kernel oil" and "partially hydrogenated palm oil" to "sodium lauryl sulfate" and "glyceryl stearate." Other names, according to the Rainforest Action Network, include "stearic acid," anything that includes "palmitate," and "elaesis guineensis" (the oil palm's Latin name). Try finding products in your grocery store without these. Not that all these terms always mean palm oil — some are occasionally derived from other oils. But companies likely can't guarantee that, and there's no way of knowing from reading a package.
So how do we change things? One group trying to answer that question is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a 4,000-member-strong industry non-profit. Its approach includes offering financial incentives to stakeholders along the supply chain in return for implementing best practices.
RSPO members must demonstrate that plantation land was purchased, not stolen, and that they offer safe conditions for workers. The RSPO prohibits clearing primary (never-logged) forests and imposes requirements like: obtaining free, prior, and informed consent from locals for new plantings; analyzing and protecting fragile soils and areas of high-conservation value; and mitigating carbon impacts in place.
But right now, only about 20 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified, and critics think the group's approach still doesn't go far enough. Greenpeace's Senior Palm Oil Campaigner Diana Ruiz said investigations show that brands shift responsibility for palm oil sourcing problems onto traders, and traders don't enforce on their end. "Once you get … all the way to the grower, there is no monitoring being done," she says — and no good way to address violations.
Beyond the produce section, palm oil can be found in almost everything in your grocery store, from from Oreos to toothpaste and beyond.
The Future of Palm Oil
Palm oil has a long supply chain, which makes reducing its use complex. "Historically, companies have not paid attention to what happens at the farm level, because [palm oil] is a secondary ingredient," said Neil Blomquist, a spokesperson for the education and advocacy group Palm Done Right.
That may be changing, as palm oil gets more publicity. Still, places where palm grows see a clear economic boom from the industry, and there's always a market for cheap consumables.
"It's a difficult industry to regulate for that reason," Blomquist said. "There's been a growing demand for palm oil, the lowest-cost oil that can be produced. So, increasing demand with an increasing population in the world is really what's driving the problems… with more and more rainforest being destroyed."
Ending the use of palm oil may not be the answer. "Going to a boycott could cause more problems," said Dan Strechay, the RSPO's US outreach and engagement representative. "Because if we don't buy palm oil — or ingredients that contain palm oil — it's not like we snap our fingers and we have additional materials to put in. Something else has to be grown to replace it, and other oil seeds may require more land."
But continuing as we are means ignoring the true costs of palm oil: to the environment and people living in palm-oil-producing areas. Said Zimmerman,"If the humans aren't doing well, the orangutans are not going to do well."
So, what do we do now? Eating fewer processed foods, buying locally, and otherwise voting with your dollars is a start. Keeping companies accountable for meeting their stated deadlines around sourcing sustainable palm oil is also key.
Ruiz says the next step is asking suppliers and traders to create more transparency around their reporting, and the public can help. "We have huge influence over these brands," she said. "The key here is to use that buying power we have as consumers and demand that companies do better."
This story originally appeared in Asparagus Magazine. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>