Palm oil 101: What are the issues? What are the solutions?

Camille Cabrolier

Palm Oil Deforestation in Indonesia

Palm oil is the most common oil used in the manufacturing of all kinds of products, mainly in food, but also in shampoos, soap, cosmetics, even gas. When you go to the supermarket and buy that delicious chocolate we all love, look at the ingredients. It will probably not say “palm oil”, but rather something more like “vegetable oils” or “palm components”. These are two of many ways to avoid saying “palm oil” in the ingredients. There are however, some products that say they are “palm oil free” or “palm oil certified”, implying their products are deforestation free. We have consumers’ pressure groups to thank for this. As an example, Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) and Green Living (GL) launched an initiative in 2011 that mobilized the public to put pressure on Norwegian Food producers. These campaigns reduced Norwegian palm oil consumption by two thirds in 2012, meaning a 9600 ton reduction.

Malayan Tiger

Palm oil trees are native to Africa, however they were brought to Southeast Asia in the middle of the 19th century and later to America, particularly South America. The percentage of oil palm plantations converted from forest has reached 45% in Southeast Asia and 31% in South America in the last 30 years. Malaysia and Indonesia belong to the most affected areas, where there has been a 91% increase in deforestation due to palm oil production since 1989. Before converting the land, these zones were very rich in biodiversity and home for many animals such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinoceros. 

Deforestation is the main cause of habitat loss for these different species, which carries an increase in death rate and decrease in reproduction, resulting in more endangered wildlife. Furthermore, it also results in new problems such as frightened elephants accidentally stampeding into villages and hungry tigers entering human settlements in the search for food. 

While palm oil deforestation is a far-reaching problem, there are still some small personal actions that can be taken to target the problem. For example, you can start by reading food labels and avoid buying products that contain palm oil, as consumer pressure is an efficient way to force companies to be more responsible. Another alternative action is to look for products that say “palm oil free” or RSPO Certified, which implies responsible palm oil usage. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)  was formally established in 2004. As of 2018, RSPO had more than 4000 members, spanning 92 countries, and has worked tirelessly to drive change in the palm oil industry. To learn more, the Jungle episode of the Our Planet series on Netflix discusses the impact palm oil has on orangutans. The more we learn about this issue, the more we can do to initiate change. 


  • Greenpeace
  • Palm Oil Investigations
  • Parc des Félins
  • Vijay V., et al.
  • World Wildlife
  • Rainforest Foundation Norway
  • RSPO Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Sources: Greenpeace, The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss, Palm Oil Investigations, Parc des Félins, Rainforest Foundation Norway, RSPO Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, World Wildlife Fund