Palm oil is used in anything from shampoo to instant noodles.
Next Generation Science Standards
- MS-ESS3-1. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth’s mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes.
Key Vocabulary: Palm Oil, Monoculture, Ethical Sourcing
Next time you’re in the bathroom, read the ingredients list on your personal care products: shampoo bottles, body wash, lotion, any other item that catches your eye. There’s one thing likely in every product you find: palm oil. Even chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, stearic acid, and glyceryl are palm oil derivatives.
With palm oil being used in so many different household products, it’s become one of the most valuable commodities in the world, an industry measured in the billions of dollars. The palm oil industry is projected to grow by 42% from 2015 to 2021 and many environmentalists are concerned about additional pressure on already endangered ecosystems. The increasing demand for palm oil could lead to widespread loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and soil erosion the world’s few remaining rainforests.
The Impact of Palm Oil
The palm oil tree, Elaeis guineensis, originates from Africa. Its oil can be extracted from its fruit and for generations, it was used in a variety of applications from a moisturizer in soap to a biofuel ingredient in cars. The vast majority of palm oil is produced in large scale plantations in southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia. These high yield palm oil trees can only grow in a narrow tropical zone around the world close to the equator. To make room for the massive plantations that make for profitable palm oil harvesting, large stretches of historical rainforest have been cut down, resulting in deforestation.
A map showing the distribution of palm oil plantations in Indonesia (Photo credit: USDA)As trees are cut down, wildlife must engage in a mass migration or die in the flames or bulldozed trees. In one study, only about 15% of the wildlife survives the transition from rainforest to a plantation. For the wildlife that escapes the immediate devastation, there is increased competition for the resources in the remaining rainforest. The increased competition puts added pressure on the remaining populations of wildlife which may not be suited for increased competition for limited resources. Orangutans in the Indonesia rainforest provide the starkest example.
The effects of deforestation extend to the soils and atmosphere. When forests are burnt, the air fills with very small bits of ash and that creates a haze, leading to more cases of asthma and respiratory problems for local peoples. As the forest burns, soil chemistry is radically changed as well. Trees, wildlife, and plants decompose in the soil over time, providing the ecosystem with recycled nutrients, and keeps the soil chemistry stable, and productive. When the top layer of the forest is burnt, there is a massive influx of nutrients into the soil. But without the trees and other plants, the nutrients cannot be replaced. Additionally, the soils are no longer bound by roots, leading to landslides in a part of the world that can see over 3 meters of rain a year.
And while plantations have a lot of plants that stabilize soils, they form a monoculture of palm oil trees. A monoculture is a single type of cultivated plant or tree that grows in a limited area, such as cornfields in the US or palm oil trees in Indonesia. While monocultures are common, they are very problematic. Ecosystems are built on the interactions between numerous species that are dependent on each other for survival. Monocultures remove the diversity of species in an area in favor of one dominate species, restricting interactions to a handful of factors such as access to sunlight, soil nutrients, or water.
This makes products from monocultures incredibly consistent; corn from Iowa will be very similar to corn from Oklahoma, or Missouri. However, consistency, while desirable for consumers, can be devastating to surrounding wildlife, or even to the monoculture itself. Monocultures are far more susceptible to diseases and pests that target specific plants because of the lack of genetic variability in the population. When a disease or pests do strike, the chances of losing everything vastly increase. This is partially what made the Irish Potato Famine so devastating; the English allowed the Irish peasants to plant one type of potato – when the blight started, nearly every single plant, and farmer, was affected.
For surrounding wildlife, the effects are more immediate. Like people who rely on a neighborhood grocery store for food, wildlife relies on ecosystems for food, water, and living materials. When parts of the ecosystem are removed, wildlife is left with no food, water, or materials to survive. In Indonesian rainforests, monocultures are not useful to the wildlife that previously occupied the rainforests, and with their habitat loss, their population declines.
Challenges Demand Solutions
The single biggest impact on the use of palm is by you, the consumer. While few people have the time or knowledge to understand all of the ingredients listed on a product, it’s good to become familiar with the nature of palm oil production.
In addition to some of the environmental impacts, the existing supply is not meeting the growing demand, which encourages the continued expansion of palm oil plantations into historic rainforests. Palm oil plantations are one of the few sources of income in a part of the world with high levels of poverty and the companies who own these massive farms have shown little inclination to change poor and unsafe work conditions for their workers. As part of being an informed consumer, it is also necessary to know which organizations are monitoring palm oil production for abuses.
Many organizations are working on the problems of palm oil plantations, from human rights abuses to environmental degradation. Ethical sourcing is a term used to describe how a consumer may use their money to purchase items that are produced in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and socially just. The idea is simple; as a consumer, you may be more willing to purchase an ethically sourced product over that of a competitor that is not. Organizations such as Ethical Consumer, Environmental Investigation Agency, and the World Wildlife Foundation have created rating systems to measure brand commitment to sustainability and human labor impact for palm oil production.
With palm oil demand growing, it becomes increasingly important to know more about what palm oil is, where it comes from, and whether or not your brand of choice is engaging in ethical or harmful actions related to the production of its palm oil. Knowing what you use and why you use it, maybe the most important action you can take is confronting this growing challenge related to the production and distribution of palm oil.