Is palm oil vegan? Why the ingredient is, but the ethics behind it might not be

Author: Lex Rigby

Read Time:   |  19th April 2022

Lex Rigby from Viva! investigates the problems with palm oil production and its effect on wildlife and climate change to find out is palm oil vegan or should vegans avoid it?

Palm oil is a contentious issue for vegans, because in cultivating oil palm plantations, vast rainforests have been destroyed and wildlife lost.

Orangutans are on the brink of extinction and 80 per cent of Sumatran elephants have been wiped out as a result of their habitats disappearing1.

Where does palm oil come from?

Around 90 per cent of oil palms grow in areas that were once tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, oil palms are grown in over 40 countries and plantations are spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America2, threatening the habitats of endangered species there too.

Palm oil is a highly versatile plant-based ingredient extracted from the fruit pulp of oil palm trees. Producing between six to 10 times more oil per acre than soya crops, palm oil is the world’s highest-yielding and least expensive vegetable oil to manufacture3.

It’s found in no less than half of all household goods4 – from lipstick, toothpaste and soap to biscuits, snacks and baked goods.

Of the total global palm oil production, 71 per cent is used by the food industry, 24 per cent in cosmetics and five per cent for biofuels5.

Yet with significant expansions afoot in the green energy market, aiming to lower our reliance on fossil fuels, demand for biofuels is rising and it’s likely we’ll see a significant shift whereby biofuels could replace growing oil palm for food and cosmetics as the key driver of deforestation.

While technically vegan, the question of whether palm oil can be cruelty-free, or even environmentally-friendly, is not simple.

Palm oil fruit is processed to make crude palm oil. (Photo by Yuli Seperi/Getty Images)

Palm oil fruit is processed to make crude palm oil. (Photo by Yuli Seperi/Getty Images)

How has palm oil production impacted wildlife?

One of the main reasons why vegans may choose to avoid palm oil is because of the impact its production has on many species of animals.

To make way for oil palm plantations, southeast Asia has adopted a deforestation strategy of ‘slash and burn’ that’s deeply damaging to the environment and biodiversity alike – including orangutans, proboscis monkeys, elephants, rhinos and tigers, as well as 90 different species of fish6.

On the island of Borneo, at least 50 per cent of all deforestation between 2005 and 2015 was related to oil palm development7.

The negative impact on orangutans in particular has received widespread coverage, in part due to distressing footage released by Greenpeace of a lone orangutan clinging to a tree as it’s felled and their banned ‘There’s a Rang Tan in my Bedroom’ Christmas TV ad for Iceland supermarket.

The substantial loss of natural habitat means that all three species of orangutans are now sadly listed as critically endangered, with numbers decreasing, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species8.

In 2018, the IUCN report on Palm Oil and Biodiversity listed palm oil production as a major threat to 193 critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species across the globe9.

Worryingly, estimates suggest further oil palm expansion could go on to affect 54 per cent of all threatened mammals and 64 per cent of all threatened birds worldwide10.

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Are there any other environmental problems?

Tropical rainforests act as carbon sinks by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in trees and roots. It’s a crucial process, central to slowing down global heating.

Yet forest and peatland burning, to make way for oil palm plantations, is releasing that stored carbon back into the air and has become a serious source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions2.

Essentially, we need rainforests to mitigate the growing climate emergency. Over recent decades, clearing forests, uncontrolled fires and the drainage of peat soils has collectively reduced the capacity of the planet’s lungs.

Of the world’s three largest tropical rainforests, only the Congo has enough standing forest left to remain a strong net carbon sink.

Air and water pollution, as well as soil erosion1, are other environmental impacts associated with palm oil production.

In 2015, fires started in Indonesia were blamed for up to half a million cases of respiratory infections across not just Sumatra, Borneo and Brunei but also Malaysia, Singapore, south Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.

In fact, one study estimated that shockingly the fires actually caused over 100,000 deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore11.

The so-called Southeast Asian haze illustrates how vast smoke plumes can travel long distances and cause transboundary havoc.

Tropical forests continue to tumble at a rapid rate to make way for fast-expanding palm oil cultivation despite a decade-old industry drive to encourage sustainable cultivation. (Photo by Mangiwau via Getty Images)

Tropical forests continue to tumble at a rapid rate to make way for fast-expanding palm oil cultivation despite a decade-old industry drive to encourage sustainable cultivation. (Photo by Mangiwau via Getty Images)

Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil?

In 2004, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to reassure buyers that products bearing its label don’t contribute to deforestation, the climate crisis or human rights abuses.

Currently, there are more than 4,000 RSPO members and around one fifth of the world’s palm oil is certified as ‘sustainable’. Yet it took the organisation 14 years to prohibit the clearing of any type of forest to make way for palm crops.

It goes to show that even those with the best intentions are not perfect and can be easily accused of ‘green-washing’12.

Concerns about how the certification scheme’s standards are monitored and enforced have been raised and failings in the auditing process have been highlighted in extensive reports from environmental groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency.

As it stands, it’s impossible for companies to guarantee that the palm oil they use has not contributed to the ravaging of habitats or loss of wildlife.

The rapid growth of the palm oil industry and the damage already done could mean we’re simply too far gone to establish a sustainable threshold.

What we can do, is ensure producers are better scrutinised by using public pressure to set internationally robust regulations that protect fragile ecosystems and halt further deforestation.

What hope is there for the future?

At least when it comes to biofuel, there is hope. Of the total biomass produced by the palm oil industry, as little as 10 per cent is extracted to make oil. That’s a staggering 90 per cent of palm oil biomass classified as waste.

Instead of increasing palm oil production to meet the ever-growing demands of the global economy, researchers are looking at ways to convert palm oil waste into biofuel with the use of bentonite clay.

This is just one way we can increase the efficiency of oil palm crops without destroying ever more habitats.

(Photo by Surasak Suwanmake via Getty Images)

(Photo by Surasak Suwanmake via Getty Images)

Is there a viable alternative to palm oil?

Alternatives to palm oil exist, but a shift from oil palm to other crops is not a viable solution. Oil palm produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area than any other major oil crop9, so a shift to replacements like soya, sunflower and rapeseed means more land would be required.

In turn that would likely just transfer deforestation and biodiversity loss to other regions where those oils are produced.

Ultimately, palm oil is here to stay and shouldn’t necessarily be avoided.

But greater public awareness is required in order to garner more effective policies and programs to manage existing oil palm plantations and hold unscrupulous plantation developers accountable for unwarranted devastation.

In conclusion, palm oil is technically suitable for a vegan diet as it is derived from plants and is free from animal products. However, due to the devastating impact palm oil production has on the environment and animals, it’s up to the individual whether or not they choose to avoid it.

We’re often told to eat organic food, but do you actually know what organic food really is and why it’s more sustainable?

*Featured image credit: Anup Shah via Getty

References

  1. WWF. 2018. Palm oil. https://www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/food/palm-oil
  2. Vijay V, Pimm SL, Jenkins CN et al. 2016. The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss. PLoS One. 11 (7) e0159668.
  3. RSPO. 2020. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Aboutwww.rspo.org/about
  4. UNEP. 2016. Conservationists and palm oil industry should collaborate to protect great apes, fragile ecosystemswww.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=55520#.WXiya4jyu70
  5. Gesteiro E, Guijarro L, Sánchez-Muniz FJ et al. 2019. Palm Oil on the Edge. Nutrients. 11, 9.
  6. Vijay V, Pimm SL, Jenkins CN et al. 2016. The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss. PLoS One. 11 (7) e0159668
  7. Gaveau DL, Sheil D, Husnayaen et al. 2016. Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation: examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo. Scientific Reports. 6, 32017.
  8. IUCN. 2020. The IUCN red list of threatened specieshttps://www.iucnredlist.org/
  9. Meijaard, E. et al. (eds.) (2018). Oil palm and biodiversity. A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. IUCN Oil Palm Task Force Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 
  10. Lees AC, Moura NG, de Almeida AS et al. 2015. Poor prospects for avian biodiversity in Amazonian oil palm. PLoS One. 10 (5) e0122432.
  11. Koplitz SN, Mickley LJ, Marlier ME et al. 2016. Public health impacts of the severe haze in Equatorial Asia in September-October 2015: Demonstration of a new framework for informing fire management strategies to reduce downwind smoke exposure. Environmental Research Letters. 11, 9.
  12. EIA. 2020. Sustainable palm oil watchdog’s credibility questioned by independent review. https://eia-international.org/news/sustainable-palm-oil-watchdogs-credibility-questioned-by-independent-review/

Written by

Lex Rigby

Lex joined Viva! in 2018 after more than a decade campaigning to defend, conserve and protect marine wildlife. As Viva!’s Head of Investigations she is responsible for coordinating hard-hitting investigations to support Viva!’s ground-breaking campaigns, with the ultimate aim of growing veganism in the UK and increasing support for Viva!.

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