Why is palm oil so controversial?

by Project Censored

Palm oil is everywhere. This globally traded vegetable oil is found in thousands of products you buy off the shelf, like ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics. Palm oil is in hundreds of products we routinely buy yet, environmentally, it’s incredibly destructive. Although palm oil is relatively cheaper to produce, animals and indigenous communities suffer tremendously due to the cultivation. Studies have proven that while palm oil is a very successful ingredient it has proven to be detrimental to the well being of the orangutans, causing a decrease of at least 90% along with other species. The rainforest of which orangutans once thrived in are being replaced by plantations. The carbon dioxide produced the cultivation of palm is one of the big reasons the orangutan population is on the decline. Scientist have concluded that there are over 50 orangutan killed weekly due to deforestation. Even though palm oils are used in plenty of household items, and many food items, is destroying the rainforest along with orangutan population worth the product?

Carolyn Fry, “Malaysia deforestation: Why is palm oil so controversial?” The Daily Telegraph, February 1, 2011.


Student Researcher: Sharon Whitfield, Indian River State College

Faculty Evaluator: Elliot Cohen, Indian River State College


Palm oil is controversial because it is relatively cheap, most versatile, high yielding, most widely produced, and the most negative side of palm oil has proven to be damaging to the ecosystem.  In order to make way for new palm oil production we are destroying rain forests and allowing the discharge to kill aquatic wildlife. There is also the displacement of indigenous people and farmers as well as the loss of habitat. According to Greenpeace International, with the palm oil production being properly managed, this could be a potential benefit to the populations of developing countries, providing sustainable livelihoods. Further, most high fat diets such as palm oil can lead to weight gain and chronic disease. Although palm oil is relatively low in  polyunsaturated fat, the versions typically used for industrial food purposes can be as dangerous as trans fats because they become oxidized as the oil is refined for culinary purposes.To date nearly 100% of the world’s palm oil production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Up to 50 orangutans are killed every week due to deforestation.

There is also a positive side to palm oil production. Palm oil production in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia offers new jobs. It has helped with the construction of roads and new path ways giving the less fortunate people who live there the opportunity to gain access to different locations and parts of land to which they otherwise wouldn’t have had access. The production of palm oil provides hundreds of thousands of people with jobs and salaries; not to mention the benefits and perks of new hospitals, schools, and telecommunication projects added to areas in need.

But these benefits also come with costs. Even though there are many areas of land that have been cleared for the sole purpose of planting palm trees for mass production, producers still choose to clear virgin land simply because of the timber it yields. They even go to the extreme called regional haze, which is the unlawful act of burning parts of the rainforest in a controlled manner. Sometimes this hazing becomes uncontrolled, causing more damage than originally intended. Cultivation in this manner is said to cause greenhouse gas, which is polluting the atmosphere. Disputes over land intended to be harvested has also led to crime. Thus, although palm oil harvesting may have some benefits, its costs appear to outweigh these benefits.