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How Palm Oil in Everything From Food to Fuel Is Killing Orangutans and Exacerbating Climate Change

Check out the devastating photos from Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests. And join Rainforest Action Network and Post Carbon Institute to fight back.

Palm oil. It’s the ubiquitous additive in everything from soaps and lotions to cookies and diet foods. It’s found in junk food like Cheez-Its, Tootsie Rolls, and M&Ms, but it’s also found in the products of more ecologically conscious companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Nature’s Way, and Toms of Maine. According to Rainforest Action Network (RAN), palm oil can be found in almost half of the products found in grocery stores. The US consumes most of its 1.2 million metric tons of palm oil per year through these products.


Palm oil is also used for fuel, specifically as a biofuel additive. The European Union is the worst offender, thanks in part to a European Union directive promoting the use of biofuels for transport. From 2006 to 2012, Europe’s use of palm oil as a biofuel additive increased by 365 percent, and overall European consumption of palm oil is now a whopping 5.6 million metric tons.

To meet this huge (and growing) demand, palm oil is being produced on vast industrial plantations, largely in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since 1990, the total area of Indonesia covered by palm oil plantations grew 600 percent to nearly 20 million acres (about the size of Maine).

Palm oil is the single biggest threat driving orangutans toward extinction. Photo by Paul Hilton Photography.

Beyond direct impacts of land use change from converting Indonesia’s peatlands into energy crops, a significant, unaccounted source of emissions comes from indirect land use change . The consequences of displacing food crops with energy crops in response to increased global demand for biofuels are vast and mostly omitted from impact assessments. Clearing land for production of biofuels leads to increased clearing in other regions to fill market demand for the missing food crop, and accounts for pollution, loss of biodiversity, and escalating food prices. As a result of direct and indirect land use changes, the global area of farmland devoted to agrofuels production is both massive and rapidly increasing. According to RAN, 2009, at least 29 million hectares (or 112,000 square miles, slightly greater than the total amount of arable land in France and the United Kingdom combined) are being used worldwide for agrofuels production. 

Palm oil is now one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction worldwide, and the single biggest threat driving orangutans toward extinction; the best estimates place their population at just 60,600, and it’s shrinking quickly. The palm oil industry is also responsible for widespread human rights violations including displacement of indigenous peoples, land conflicts with forest-dependent communities, and forced and child labor. Hence palm oil from such unsustainable sources has been dubbed "conflict palm oil" (read more in the RAN report released earlier this year).

Deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia is also responsible for more carbon pollution each year than all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the United States combined. In fact, due to deforestation, Indonesia has the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emissions behind only China and the United States. Indonesia’s peatlands hold at least  57 billion tons of carbon. This peatland carbon, if released as CO2 in the atmosphere, would be responsible for a large share of our remaining carbon budget if we are to stay within the accepted 2°C warming cap that’s been set to avoid “dangerous climate change” (although, even that limit has been found to be inadequate as we race toward it). It is a true carbon time bomb.

Since 1990, the total area of Indonesia covered by palm oil plantations grew 600%. Photo by  Paul Hilton Photography

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