Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Approximately 85 percent of palm oil is grown in the tropical countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea on industrial plantations that have severe impacts on the environment, forest peoples and the climate.
Palm oil and its derivatives are used in a ubiquitous array of packaged foods, including ice cream, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, cereals, breakfast bars, cake mixes, doughnuts, potato chips, instant noodles, frozen sweets and meals, baby formula, margarine, and dry and canned soups. In the U.S. alone, palm oil imports have jumped 485% in the last decade. The dramatic and growing demand for this crop in recent decades has pushed sprawling palm oil plantations deep into some of the world’s most valuable rainforests and palm oil production is now one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction around the globe.
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 “conflictpalm oil.”
Palm oil can be used to produce biofuels as biodiesel. Palm oil biodiesel is often blended with other fuels to create palm oil biodiesel blends. Palm oil biodiesel meets the European EN 14214 standard for biodiesels, but the US Environmental Protection Agency ruled in early 2012 that palm oil does not meet the US Renewable Fuels Standard, which calls for 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be blended into gasoline. The EPA’s ruling came after extensive lifecycle analysis of palm oil production, which showed that deforestation significantly undercuts the climate benefits of palm oil as a biofuel source over fossil fuels. Global palm oil production hit 58 million metric tons in 2013, and with growing markets in China and India (which account for more than a third of palm oil imports), there is a significant and growing demand.
- Article: “How Palm Oil in Everything from Food to Fuel is Killing Orangutans and Exacerbating Climate Change” by Mike Gaworecki and Leslie Moyer
- Essay: “Bioenergy – A Disaster for Biodiversity, Health and Human Rights” by Rachel Smolker
- Primer page: Biofuels
- Partner page: The Power is in Your Palm | Rainforest Action Network
- 2-Minute Video: “The Last Stand of the Orangutan: The Power is in Your Palm” | Rainforest Action Network