Orangutan in Borneo

Why is palm oil bad for orangutans?

Certain types of palm trees produce large red fruit which are rich with oil. After refining, this oil, known as palm oil, can be used to produce all sorts of products, including oils used in foods like chocolates and cookies, cosmetics like makeup, and even biodiesel, a fuel that can be used in cars instead of diesel (gasoline).

Oil palms, as these trees are called, have very high oil yields -- some of the highest of any crop used for biofuel (plant-based fuel) production. A single hectare (2.5 acres) can produce up to 7 tons of oil, many times what would be produced from the same area of corn, soy, or canola.

Given its high yield and the many uses for its oil, it may seem that oil palm is a great solution to dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and concerns about global warming (the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere). However, there are problems is some places where palm oil is being produced, specifically the tropical rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia.

About 88 percent of global palm oil production was in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2007. Although much of this production took place on land long ago established for agriculture, some of it occurred in areas that were newly cleared specifically for oil palm cultivation.

The most threatened ecosystems by expansion of oil palm plantations are rainforests and peatlands. Peatlands are swampy areas where the soils are made of peat — decomposed vegetation. Peat acts as a sponge, soaking up water and helping prevent floods. It also stores large amounts of carbon.

When peatlands are drained, the stored carbon reacts with air to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas. The dry peat then becomes highly flammable, increasing the risk of large-scale fires when plantation developers use fire to clear land and burn agricultural waste.

Greenhouse gas emissions also result when rainforest is cleared for oil palm plantations. Worse, oil palm plantations support very low levels of biodiversity, meaning most of the plants and animals once found in the rainforest must either move or perish. Oil palm plantations are not good for wildlife and endangered species like the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the pygmy elephant of Borneo, and the Sumatran tiger are all threatened by development for oil palm.

What can I do?

The first thing you can do is be aware of palm oil and its impact on the environment. Look at the labels of household products and packaged foods to see if they contain palm oil (however palm oil is often not labeled as an ingredient). You may soon see that palm oil is all around us.

Palm oil isn't going to go away, but consumer pressure on the industry will help force the industry to reduce its impact on the environment. Already some industry leaders are working to develop "sustainable palm oil" that meets certain criteria to ensure that its production did not result in deforestation or hurt wildlife. Consumers can now choose products made from more environmentally-friendly palm oil, which is certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO. These products should be supported to encourage the entire industry to shift towards "greener" palm oil.

Another way you can help is to support organizations working to protect orangutans and other wildlife in their native habitat. For example, Orangutan Foundation International [article] and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation are two such groups.

Remember it is important to note that not all palm oil is bad for rainforests, so be sure to check whether palm oil in the products you buy is RSPO-certified or not.

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By Rhett Butler

Date published: June 24, 2004 | Last updated: March 21, 2014