What is palm oil?

Palm oil originates from the fruit of the oil palm tree, native to South America and Western Africa. There are two varieties of oil palm, Elaeis guineensis and Elaeis oleifer[1]. The palm oil tree produces two types of oil, palm kernel oil that comes from the seed, and palm oil, which comes from the fruit of the tree.

What is palm oil used for?

Palm oil is one of the most consumed vegetable oils on the planet and is in about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarkets. 72% of palm oil is used for food, 18% is used for cleaning & personal care and 10% is used for feedstock and Biofuel[2].

Where is it grown?

Palm oil is grown and produced throughout Africa, Asia, North America and South America. With 85% of palm oil being produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia[3].

What are the major problems in palm cultivation

Palm cultivation is causing several problems, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia? Some include:

-An increase in deforestation in bio-diverse areas due to monoculture palm plantations, creating the destruction of ecosystems and animal habitats.

-Land being stripped from Indigenous people and used to develop oil plantations by large corporations

-Increased association between human rights abuse and conflict with land grabbing.

-Poor and unsafe working conditions and pay as well as potential child labour.

-Pollution of land and water supplies caused by plantations’ use of illegal and legal chemicals.

-Illegal acts of bribery and corruption used to increase plantations.

What is sustainable palm oil?

Sustainable palm oil is defined as certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) as produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and certified against the RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil standard.

Who are the RSPO?

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to advocate the production and use of sustainable palm oil for the planet, prosperity and people. Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO, including product manufacturers, retailers, environmental and non-government organisations (NGOs)[5].

Certified sustainable palm oil means that the palm oil that is grown has been certified against the 8 RSPO principles and criteria. These strict sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice.

A manufacturer can claim to be a member of the RSPO without sourcing certified sustainable palm oil, therefore it does not mean that the brand is sourcing sustainable palm oil. Investigations on the ground suggest some companies are not following their promised sustainable palm oil commitments. The RSPO have good intentions, however, and as consumers it’s important to research into each company to truly get an indication of the organisation’s genuine commitment to certified sustainable palm oil. [6]

The Problem with Palm Oil

Palm Oil Connection


Palm oil has a significant effect on our health directly through the consumption and indirectly through its production. [7]

Palm oil is high in saturated fats which are known to raise cholesterol which increases the risk of heart disease. Palm oil is considered a healthier alternative to other cooking oils which are high in trans-fats, however, during the manufacturing process it becomes oxidised, reducing some of its health benefits. Furthermore, frying the oil at high temperatures can also lead to the loss of some of its health properties.

The production of palm oil can cause many negative environmental impacts which in-turn are harmful to human health. These include:

-Air pollution caused by the burning of forests. In 2015 during the Haze Crisis there were over 500,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses in 2015 and 19 people died in Indonesia alone.

-Water quality affected by extensive use of fertilisers & pesticides on plantations


50 billion kilograms of palm oil is produced every year, which is equivalent to the weight of 10 million Asian Elephants. Much of this palm oil being produced is done unsustainably which is as a result, causing serious damage to the environment. [8]

The main damage:

-Deforestation of native rainforests, it has been predicted by the UN that most of Indonesia’s forest might be destroyed by 2022.

-Land clearance for plantations removes fragments and damages important wildlife habitats, leading to a high loss of species.

-Land and water pollution: Fertilisers and pesticides pollute groundwater and soils.

-Greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation is estimated to account for 10% of manmade CO2 emissions.

Animal Cruelty

-In order to make room for palm oil plantations, significant amounts of land have had to be cleared, resulting in the loss of local wildlife’s homes. This also opens up previously inaccessible areas of forest, further increasing the amount of illegal hunting and poaching of native animals such as the orangutans.[9]

-The loss of these animals’ natural habitat means that they are being forced into foreign areas of land like the palm oil plantations in search of food or a new home. Workers on these plantations see these animals as pests and they are often killed or taken to be sold to the highest bidder.

-It is often that mother Orangutans are killed, and their babies are stolen to be sold as pets.


The production of palm oil has a significant effect on many social issues regarding land rights, poor working conditions, child labour, restricted access to facilities:[10]

-Indigenous peoples customary land rights where palm oil is produced is often not recognised by the state, resulting in the governments handing over their land to large palm oil companies without their knowledge or consent. As a result, villagers have been pushed out and displaced out of their traditional farming areas by corporate land grabs.

-Workers on palm oil plantations often live in poor conditions without access to clean water and lighting.[11]

-Child labour is a prevalent issue in Malaysian and Indonesian plantations. These children receive little or no pay and are forced to endure harsh working conditions which include, long hours and exposure to toxic chemicals. It is estimated that between 72,000 and 200,000 stateless children work on palm oil plantations in Malaysia

-Displaced communities are forced to farm further away from towns, which restricts their access to markets for their produce, as well as their access to basic services such as health care and education.

-Many communities rely on forest resources for food and medical purposes. As a result of deforestation, local’s access to clean water and fertile soils leads to the loss of farming, fishing and hunting for food.

Related Articles

[1]  Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, FAQ on Lush and Palm Oil, 2017, https://au.lush.com/article/faq-lush-and-palm-oil

[2] Palm Oil Investigations,What is palm oil?,  https://www.palmoilinvestigations.org/about-palm-oil.html

[3] Say Not To Palm Oil, Whats the issue?, https://www.saynotopalmoil.com/Whats_the_issue.php

[4] Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, FAQ on Lush and Palm oil 2017, https://au.lush.com/article/faq-lush-and-palm-oil

[5] Green Palm Sustainability, what is sustainable palm oil?,  https://greenpalm.org/about-palm-oil/sustainable-palm-oil

[6] What is the RSPO?, https://orangutanfoundation.org.au/palm-oil/

[7] Health impacts, https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/health/

[8] Environmental Impacts, https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/environmental/

[9] Endangered Orangutans, http://factsanddetails.com/asian/cat68/sub430/item2475.html

[10] Social Impacts, https://www.spott.org/palm-oil-resource-archive/impacts/social/

[11] Social and Environmental Impact of Palm Oil, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_and_environmental_impact_of_palm_oil#cite_note-econ2010-1