What is palm oil and why is it so bad for the environment?

Palm oil from the garden is extracted into palm oil products. (Getty Images)
Some forms of palm oil production are damaging our tropical rainforests and the life in it. (Getty Images)

You may well be aware that palm oil is bad for the environment, but not be quite sure why.

And while you might otherwise be growing more sustainably conscious, considering veganism and shopping second-hand, what you probably don't know is that you're likely consuming palm oil every day.

That’s because it’s found in practically everything, used in roughly 50% of the packaged products on supermarket shelves – from the bread, pizza and chocolate you eat to the washing detergent you use to the lipstick you wear. Avoiding it might even be harder than cutting out meat, or giving up fast fashion.

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Some big companies have tried to ‘take action’ against the use of palm oil, including Iceland announcing plans in 2018 to remove it from all its own-label products (though recent reports suggest this might have changed) amid growing concerns the product is harming the planet and the animals that live in it.

But what exactly is it and why is it so bad for the environment?

What is palm oil?

palm fruits on tree palm
Crude palm oil comes from squeezing fleshy fruit and palm kernel oil comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle. (Getty Images)

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil found in the fruit that grows on palm trees. The trees are native to Africa but are now found in south east Asia, with Indonesia and Malaysia making up more than 85% of global supply, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). With that in mind, there are still 42 other countries that also produce palm oil.

As mentioned above, it's found in an endless list of packaged products you might use every day, as well as being used in animal feed and as a 'biofuel' in many parts of the world (not the UK).

It's popular because of its versatility, with multiple properties and functions, hence the use in so many things. For example, the WWF website explains: "It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; and it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products."

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Palm oil is also used as a cooking oil in Asian and African countries, in a similar way to how the UK uses olive or sunflower oil. Palm is recognised as being an extremely efficient crop that can make lots of oil, in just small areas of land, and for most of the year.

Of course, this is why it's so beneficial for growers and those who manage small farms, who need a steady income.

Why is palm oil bad?

Endangered female orangutan sitting on a branch in the lush forest of Borneo
The production of palm oil is contributing to animals facing extinction and climate change. (Getty Images)

While, on the surface, palm oil might seem great, with endless uses and the ability to support people's livelihoods, the question is at what cost? The product is leading to the destruction of tropical rainforests, which are home to some of the world’s most threatened species.

“The major drawback of oil palm plantations is that they are developed in low-lying, wet, tropical areas – exactly where rainforests grow and endangered species such as orangutans and tigers once thrived,” says the WWF.

“Clearing land for palm oil plantations has led to widespread loss of rainforests in Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. Destruction of forests also drives climate change.”

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As well as ruining the natural habitats and homes of animals already facing extinction, not to mention some people, the impact of converting carbon-rich forest into palm oil is emitting millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases, and contributing to climate change. Plus in some cases, there is also the question around exploitation of workers and child labour.

So, it's not the palm oil itself that is 'bad' but the way it's produced and the negative knock-on effects this has.

Can palm oil be sustainable?

Dispenser bottles in a row kept on rack in bathroom. Close up of multiple shampoo, soap and body lotion bottles on marble at spa. Bottle of soap and liquid in bathroom.
Can we ever know for sure if the palm oil in our products has been sustainably produced? (Getty Images)

With the problem seeming quite extreme, is there a way we can produce and use palm oil that doesn't cause so much destruction?

Sustainable palm oil is a substitute that doesn’t cause the same harm, and luckily more companies are transferring over.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formed in 2004 sets production standards and best practices for growers producing and sourcing palm oil, encouraging companies to remove deforestation and avoid conversion of other natural ecosystems in replacement, to buy and use the certified oil globally, and be transparent in their use, sourcing and buying.

However, there has still been doubt over how to know which famers have properly adhered to the rules, with little enforcement or consequences for those who don't.

And while our products now say they contain palm oil (as of 2014) rather than just vegetable oil, it's still hard to know whether it has been produced in a harmful way or not for certain, so there's still quite a long way to go.

If you want to keep tabs on the amount of palm oil-heaving companies you’re buying into, this handy website ranks our country’s favourite supermarkets and retailers on their commitment to going palm oil-free.