The Oiliest Industry

Sylvana Widman, ’20

Every other day people are implored to make a movement out of their diet, be it with free range chickens, veganism or non-GMOs.  But some consumer movements, ones that can really effect change, have yet to reach the public eye.  Palm oil, specifically – its production and lack of regulation – is responsible for major environmental destruction.  One of the main causes of deforestation is agricultural expansion, and in particular palm oil’s industry expansion.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “palm cultivation [in Indonesia] was responsible for 2 to 9 percent of worldwide emissions from tropical land use between 2000 and 2010”.  With palm oil in around half of all supermarket products, ten high school students from New York deciding to Just Say No to palm oil won’t help much.  To understand the issue and possible courses of action, we first must answer a few key questions about the Palm Oil industry.

  1. What does deforestation entail?

The major players in the palm oil industry are Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce more than 80% of palm oil worldwide.  In order to make room for palm tree plantations, the slash and burn method – clearing forests and/or peats (bogs) – is often employed to clear existing rainforest and make room for oil palm trees.  Though slash and burn is illegal in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is still employed legally elsewhere and remains prevalent in Indonesia and Malaysia.

  1. How will rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia being destroyed affect the world?  Why should I care?

Deforestation through slash and burn is detrimental both to immediately surrounding areas and the planet as a whole.  Slash and burn first of all is extremely harmful to air quality in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.  Other than immediate deaths, slash and burn fires create long-lasting health hazards, like eventually fatal respiratory tract infections, for hundreds of thousands of people.

Another issue with current palm oil production is habitat destruction.  The main problem behind habitat destruction is depleting biodiversity.  When rainforests are damaged, the delicate and rich ecosystem in each tropical forest is put at risk.  One notable example is the orangutan population in Indonesia.  According to the Orangutan Project, “Almost 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years.”  Destruction of rainforest harms not only present day animals like orangutans, but makes it all the harder for species previously thriving to live in a drastically altered climate.

On a larger scale, one of the main causes of fossil fuel release into the atmosphere is deforestation and other land use.  The draining and burning of peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm plantations causes the especially harmful release of gas.  The UCS explains, “Peatlands can hold up to 18 to 28 times as much carbon as the forests above them; when they are drained and burned, both carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere”.  

Long story short; palm oil production is destructive to the people and the delicate rainforest ecosystem in Indonesia and Malaysia, not to mention further destroys the environment for everyone.


  1. Why can’t I just not eat palm oil products to feel better about myself?

Palm oil is widely used for good reason, and seeking alternatives because of the palm oil industry is, more or less, useless.  The BBC explains palm oil is, “up to 10 times more efficient than other crops such as soybeans, rapeseed and canola in terms of the amount of land it needs.” Palm trees create fruit for more than thirty years, and thus are a staple for agriculturalists and their families.  Fixing the palm oil industry means focusing on regulation and transparency, which leads us to our next question.


  1. Why does it matter if I know about this?  How can a lowly high schooler like me help?

As is, palm oil can be found anywhere from L’oreal shampoo to Starbucks macchiatos.  Transparency – where that oil came from and how it was manufactured – is another story.  The BBC reports 20% of the world’s palm oil supply is sustainable.  Making the other 80% sustainable comes down to a larger movement.  While groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – a multi-stakeholder nonprofit – and the more stringent Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) have been created to combat this issue, consumer awareness and passion is key to pushing the envelope.  Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, says, “The Malaysian palm oil industry aspires to supply what the consumers want. Customer is ‘king’. We can supply RSPO-certified or zero deforestation palm oil or normal palm oil, based on demand, preference and price being offered.”  As is, consumer and industry complacency has kept transparency and healthy oil production practices from becoming a reality.  Awareness is just the beginning.



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