Vegetable oil, also known as palm oil, is extracted from the fruit of the Elaeis guineensis palm tree, which is indigenous to certain regions of Africa.
You’ve likely used or consumed goods that contain palm oil. It is utilized in cooking and as a component of goods like detergent, shampoo, makeup, and even biofuel. It is also used as an ingredient in crackers, frozen foods, and butter replacements.
However, as we will see, there are environmental impacts of palm oil, as the processes used to make it are incredibly destructive and unsustainable.
An extremely productive crop is palm oil. Compared to other vegetable oils, it provides a considerably higher output at a lower cost of production. Palm oil production and demand are rising quickly on a global scale. Asia, Africa, and Latin America are seeing growing plantations.
However, tropical forests—which provide vital habitat for numerous endangered species and a lifeline for certain human communities—are sacrificed in the process of such expansion.
Over 160,000 square miles, or an area roughly the size of California, were lost in deforestation-hot areas worldwide between 2004 and 2017, according to a WWF analysis of global forest cover and forest loss. The health of our world and people is in danger due to deforestation.
Table of Contents
Environmental Impacts of Palm Oil
To create a place for massive monoculture oil palm plantations, huge tracts of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been removed. This clearing has destroyed vital habitats for many endangered species, such as tigers, rhinos, and elephants.
One other significant source of greenhouse gas emissions is the burning of forests to make way for crops. Intensive farming practices contaminate water, cause erosion, and pollute the soil.
- Large-Scale Forest Conversion
- Loss of Critical Habitat for Endangered Species
- Effects on Biodiversity
- Air Pollution
- Water Pollution
- Soil Erosion
- Climate Change
- Unmitigated Growth and Production
1. Large-Scale Forest Conversion
Since the middle of the 1970s, the spread of oil palm has drastically altered tropical environments. Deforestation of tropical forests has been one significant result, with significant effects on ecosystem services and biodiversity.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, oil palm has contributed 47% and 16%, respectively, to the overall deforestation during the past 40 years.
Deforestation is especially severe on the island of Borneo, where commercial oil palm plantations are directly responsible for about half of the deforestation that occurred between 2005 and 2015. The island experiences an average annual loss of 350,000 hectares of forest.
Given the lesser economic significance of the crop, deforestation rates in Africa due to oil palm development are far lower than in Southeast Asia. Approximately 3 percent of Nigeria’s forest loss that occurred between 2005 and 2015 was related to the growth of oil palm.
Furthermore, deforestation in Latin America has not been primarily caused by oil palm. Even while many Latin American nations have high rates of general deforestation, about 80% of the expansion of oil palm in the region has happened on abandoned pastures and other land-use systems rather than in forests.
Approximately 50% of the current oil palm land area worldwide was grown at the expense of forests, with 68% of that area occurring in Malaysia and 5% in Central America. The remaining 50% of the oil palm land area replaced grasslands, shrubland, and other land uses.
The longer term, however, shows that most of the substituted land uses were originally native land, including hotspots of biodiversity like the Brazilian Cerrado savannah and the Amazon rainforest.
2. Loss of Critical Habitat for Endangered Species
Many plant and animal species are severely impacted when tropical forests are converted on a large scale to oil palm farms. Conflicts between humans and wildlife also rise as a result of oil palm development because huge animal populations are forced into more isolated areas of their natural environment.
Often, the damaged habitats support rare and endangered species or act as wildlife corridors connecting genetically diverse locations. There has been serious damage to national parks.
Illegal palm oil plantations currently cover 43 percent of Sumatra’s Tesso Nilo National Park, which was created to protect the habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran Tiger.
3. Effects on Biodiversity
There are significant local and regional reductions in biodiversity when tropical forests are cleared for oil palm. Although there are more than 470 different types of trees per hectare in rainforests, oil palm is often grown in monocultures.
These monocultures are far less structurally complex than the forests they replace; that is, they lack complex and rich understory vegetation, have only one canopy layer rather than multiple forest strata, and essentially lack woody debris and leaf litter, all of which are necessary to maintain the high biodiversity of tropical forests.
Additionally, the vast majority of forest species find oil palm plantations to be inhospitable due to pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and frequent human disturbance.
Notable species incompatible with plantations are the severely endangered tigers and orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. Certain species of birds, amphibians, fish, plants, insects, and animals that live below the earth are also in danger.
4. Air Pollution
Both in natural forests and in oil palm plantations, burning is a popular technique for removing vegetation. Burning forests contributes to air pollution, climate change, respiratory issues, and higher rates of human death by releasing smoke and carbon dioxide into the sky.
In dry years with El Niño occurrences, the number of fires and associated health issues rises. After they are created, oil palm plantations release volatile organic compounds that might increase the production of haze and aerosols, reducing the quality of the surrounding air.
5. Water Pollution
For every metric ton of palm oil produced, a palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of wastewater. This effluent’s direct discharge may contaminate freshwater, which has an impact on biodiversity downstream and people.
The excessive use of fertilizers that lead to nitrate contamination and the reallocation of water flows that may sometimes result in water scarcity in the communities surrounding oil palm plantations are the main ways that large-scale oil palm production impacts the quality of the water in the surrounding areas.
6. Soil Erosion
Erosion can also result from incorrect tree planting arrangements. It happens when forests are destroyed to make way for plantations. Planting oil palm on steep slopes is the primary cause of erosion.
Increased floods and silt buildup in rivers and ports are two effects of erosion. More fertilizer and other inputs, such as infrastructure and road repairs, are needed in areas that have been eroded.
7. Climate Change
As these “carbon sinks” store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world, draining and transforming Indonesia’s tropical peat forests is especially harmful.
In addition, one source of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change is forest fires, which are used to remove vegetation to create oil palm plantations. Indonesia is the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases as a result of its high pace of deforestation.
8. Unmitigated Growth and Production
The demand for palm oil is expected to continue growing over the next ten years. In certain places, production could increase by 100% or more, further exacerbating the environmental damage.
Healthy fats, certain vitamins, and antioxidants abound in palm oil. Because the industry violates human rights and the environment, some people decide to use only sustainably farmed palm oil, even if it can be a part of a nutritious diet.
Certifications and commitments to sustainability are a positive start, but for the palm oil business to survive into the future, a comprehensive reform is required.
It may seem impossible to take against a powerful industry such as the palm oil lobby, but you won’t be doing it alone. Ordinary people may accomplish incredible things when they come together to support a subject they are passionate about.
Limiting the amount of palm oil you consume, purchasing certified sustainable goods, asking for transparency from the palm oil sector, and applying pressure on its major players to discover sustainable alternatives are all ways you can support sustainable palm oil.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.