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

November 21, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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.

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Click here to view the slideshow and take action. Photo: Paul Hilton Photography

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).

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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.

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

A new campaign from Rainforest Action Network aims to draw attention to the threat to endangered orangutans caused by palm oil. The Last Stand of the Orangutan targets twenty of the top snack food companies using conflict palm oil in their products. The “Snack Food 20” are companies like Pepsi, Kellogg’s, Hershey’s, Kraft, Heinz and Campbell’s Soup—companies that produce some of America’s most well-known household brands. Rainforest Action Network’s goal is to collect 60,600 #InYourPalm photo petitions—that’s one person standing for each orangutan remaining in the wild—to be delivered to each of the Snack Food 20 companies. RAN is demanding that these companies only buy palm oil that can be traced back to its source and is not driving human and labor rights violations, deforestation, orangutan deaths, or expansion onto carbon-rich peatlands.

While environmental organizations in the US are building a case against conflict palm oil, the EU biofuel subsidies are driving destructive and unsustainable palm oil production. Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE), said: “It is alarming to find that palm oil use in European cars is sky-rocketing, and will only increase further, unless [members of the European Parliament] put a halt to increasing biofuels. Drivers are unknowingly being forced to fill up with a fuel that is destroying rainforests, communities and the climate.”

A recent analysis by FOEE finds that palm oil use in Europe’s transport system has increased much more quickly than predicted, and now stands at 20 percent of the biodiesel mix. Overall, the EU consumes 40 percent more palm oil (for food, fuel and cosmetics) today compared to 6 years ago, despite continual warnings about the unsustainability of palm oil expansion.

The one piece of significant good news is that 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. However, with global palm oil production hitting 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 long way to go.

Is the annihilation of orangutans or the threat of catastrophic climate change sufficient to influence an industry this powerful? They might not be, on their own. The hidden carbon liability of the palm oil industry can no longer be ignored, nor its indisputable role in human rights abuses, land grabs, and bringing endangered species to the brink of extinction. It is time to stop filling our shopping carts and fuel tanks with palm oil. We need to open our eyes, and we need to take action. The most effective instrument we have to stand up against any major industry is in our own hands. Here’s a good place to start.

We’re reaching out to you to speak up against the destruction of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests by sharing these images with your friends, family, and colleagues, and by clicking on one of the calls to action associated with each image.

Stay tuned in the coming months as PCI and Alternet unveil our next collaborate visual effort.

Mike Gaworecki

Mike Gaworecki is an activist, writer, and musician who lives in San Francisco. He is the online campaigner for RAN's Forests program.

Tags: Biofuels, climate change, palm oil, species extinction