Why Palm Oil is a Problem for People & Planet

Palm oil is found in everything from vegan butter to shampoo,
and it has devastating consequences for people and planet.
Learn why palm oil is a problem, and find out which companies
are making commitments to more sustainable palm oil production.

Palm oil is in hundreds of products is devastating for people and planet. Learn why palm oil is a problem and about the fight for more sustainable palm oil.
A palm oil farmer in Liberia

The Kraft Heinz company made waves recently with their
announcement of a range of corporate social responsibility
commitments for their supply chain. These changes move the food
giant in the right direction: they have committed to changes
regarding animal welfare, reducing emissions, and to reducing
global hunger and malnutrition through food donations.

But their new plan for procuring palm oil in a more ‘ethical,
transparent and sustainable manner’ seems to have caught the
most attention of NGOs and environmental organizations, most of
whom don’t think that Kraft-Heinz made a big enough commitment
to address the issues with palm oil.

Sidebar: in case you missed it Kraft and Heinz merged in early 2015,
creating the third largest food and beverage company in North
America and the fifth biggest in the world.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil comes from the fruit of a tropical palm tree. It is an
interesting oil crop in that it produces a fruit oil (palm oil)
and a seed oil (palm kernel oil). These saturated fats are used
extensively in processed foods like chips, dressings, ice
cream, and candy. But even if you don’t eat processed foods,
you probably have some palm oil in your life!

WWF has a comprehensive list all the body care products contain palm oil, and
it’s a long list! Check out their list of other names palm oil
might be hiding under, like the ubiquitous ‘vegetable oil,’ but
also Palmitate, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Sodium
Laureth Sulfate… many of which I’ve seen on ‘natural’ or
‘organic’ products!

Palm is an increasingly popular oil, both for its versatility
and its affordability, but palm oil also has a bad reputation –
with good reason. Take Part says palm oil is, “one of the
biggest global threats to tropical forests.”

Palm oil trees thrive in tropical regions around the world: I
saw huge palm oil plantations in central Costa Rica, and I’ve
flown over rainforests in Borneo that are checkerboarded with
palm plantations; one of the newest growing regions is Africa,
especially Liberia. Palm oil production is a problem
in all of these regions.

Why Palm Oil is a Problem

WWF notes that the top two reasons why
palm oil is a problem are:

  • large-scale forest conversion and
  • loss of critical habitat.

Wondering just how much forest has been converted? In the past
25 years, 76 million acres of Indonesian forests have been
cleared for palm.

The social and environmental costs of sugar

Ground zero for palm oil conflict is Borneo, a large island
that is home to both Malaysian and Indonesian states. On
Borneo, huge swaths of rainforest are clear cut for palm
plantations. This same rainforest also happens to be the only
habitat for the Bornean orangutan, which is critically

Palm oil is in hundreds of products is devastating for people and planet. Learn why palm oil is a problem and about the fight for more sustainable palm oil.
Orangutans are critically endangered, primarily due to palm
oil production
Palm oil is in hundreds of products is devastating for people and planet. Learn why palm oil is a problem and about the fight for more sustainable palm oil.
Clear cut swaths of forest for palm oil plantations in Borneo

As quoted in Fortune, Alan Knight, chief executive of
International Animal Rescue, told the Independent, that at “current rates there is ‘no
hope’ for Borneo orangutans’ survival in the wild if this
destruction of forests continues,” and they might have only 10
years left before they go extinct.

As if losing megafauna like orangutans was not enough, palm oil
companies are also rife with social and political concerns.

Amnesty International has focused extensively on the human
impacts of palm oil. They write that the Singapore-based
agribusiness Wilmar controls more than 43% of the global palm
oil trade, and while 2015 company revenue was US$38.78 billion,
workers struggle to earn enough for their families to
live on, in extreme cases earning as little as US$2.50 a
. This company has 60,000 employees in both Indonesia
and Malaysia. The Guardian reports that this same company
has faced child labor violations.

Palm oil is in hundreds of products is devastating for people and planet. Learn why palm oil is a problem and about the fight for more sustainable palm oil.
Child worker on a palm oil plantation. Photograph: Amnesty

The Fight for More Sustainable Palm Oil

Many companies, including Kraft-Heinz are shifting to more
sustainable palm oil because of consumer and NGO pressure about
the negative effects of palm oil production on
communities and ecosystems worldwide.

On Triple Pundit, Leon Kaye explains that RAN and Mighty Earth
have, “criticized the sector for an overall lack of transparency, disregard for
human rights and continued deforestation. To its credit, the RSPO (of
which Kraft Heinz is a member) has been successful in increasing global supplies of
sustainable palm oil.”

Related: This
yeast might make palm oil obsolete

In a
press release
on March 21, Gemma Tillack, Agribusiness
Campaign Director for Rainforest Action Network, wrote that the
Kraft Heinz announcement is a good ‘first step.’ But she also
said that “the policy lacks a deadline for the implementation
[and] customers will continue to be at risk of buying products
that contain Conflict Palm Oil for years to come.”

She further states, “A critical next step for the company is to
publish an ambitious time-bound implementation plan that
outlines the milestones to achieve [truly responsible palm

Palm oil is in hundreds of products is devastating for people and planet. Learn why palm oil is a problem and about the fight for more sustainable palm oil.
Bunches of palm oil fruits; these are usually about 2-3 feet

It’s up to us as consumers to learn more about which of our
favorite foods or body care products contain palm oil, and to
let the company know that you want to ensure a more sustainable
supply chain.

Big companies like Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, and Kellog’s
need to hear from consumers in order to push through these big
changes. Each of these huge companies has the opportunity to
become industry leaders in the fight for truly sustainable palm

Calling on big companies to make changes
does work: the announcement that Kraft-Heinz made was
“based on input from consumers, customers, investors, and
employees, among others, and we look forward to a continued
 (emphasis mine).
General Mills
announced more sustainable sourcing as early
as 2010.

Who uses sustainable palm oil?

It’s also important to recognize the companies that are already
doing it right. One of my favorites is Nutiva, which has been
working for years for truly sustainable palm oil. They make a
red palm oil for cooking and baking, and they make a super
delicious ‘buttery spread’ with a bit of palm oil for color.

Nutiva makes its stance on palm very transparent:
“Nutiva Red Palm is certified Organic, Non-GMO and
Fair Trade. We partner with Natural
to ensure that no deforestation or habitat
destruction results from the growing or harvesting process. The
palm is grown on small organic family farms in Ecuador,
averaging 10 hectares (about 25 acres), interspersed throughout
the regional forests. These subsistence farms were planted many
years ago and are now being worked by second and third
generation farming families.”

Other companies that have made some good strides towards palm
oil include Earth Balance, Justin’s, and Daiya.
Sure, these companies are not nearly the size of Kraft-Heinz,
but small companies can lead the charge towards a more
transparent, more just food system. Read more about which
brands have made a commitment in the Union of Concerned
Scientists Palm Oil Scorecard (latest
edition was 2015

What other companies do you know that have made strides
towards better palm oil? How else can we advocate for more
sustainable palm oil production?

Liberian woman with palm
Borneo rainforest clearing
, and oil
palm fruits
 from Wikimedia; orangutan image from


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