Palm oil is one of the world’s most hotly debated crops, with concerns over deforestation, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, and a slew of human rights violations in its wake, thus begging the question: is palm oil vegan?
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Palm oil is just that: oil from the fruit of a palm tree. Sounds as vegan as anything, right? Well, this most certainly plant-derived oil found in processed foods, makeup, household cleaners, toiletries, biodiesel, and more, is far from a black and white ingredient. It’s one of the world’s most hotly debated crops, with concerns over deforestation, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, and a slew of human rights violations in its wake, thus begging the question: is palm oil vegan? tweet this
Today’s video post is one that’s been requested more times that I can count and one that I greatly hesitated to produce. Not because I think the truth about palm oil is unimportant by any means, but because when you are a brand new vegan or when you’re considering going vegan, the intricacies of what is or is not vegan beyond meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, can easily overwhelm, leading to the exasperated “well what CAN I eat?!” or even worse “being vegan’s too hard, I might as well not try!”
While it’s always important for us to be informed about the products we are choosing, and I believe education is absolutely key, I want to say to brand new or would-be vegans to focus on eliminating animal products first, get your bearings, and you’ll start to find a growing awareness of other elements. This is not to excuse the effects of palm oil we’ll be discussing, but rather to assure you that in removing animal products from your diet, you will be making a huge impact already in all the areas we will be covering.
I’m going to attempt to make this video as simple and concise as possible by touching on the major elements. If you want to delve deeper, which I’m always a fan of, please see the resources below. This issue is terrifically complex and while I’ll relay suggestions at the end, you’ll see it’s difficult to produce a clear-cut yes or no to the videos establishing query.
There are three main areas of concern when it comes to palm oil: the impact on the environment, animals, and people. I’ll briefly touch on each, though all three are inextricably linked.
Let’s start with the social impact, or human side of palm oil. Once heralded, even by the United Nations,1 as a high-yielding, environmentally-friendly, economically-viable and even healthy “magic bullet” to help struggling farmers in undeveloped nations build economic stability and provide a cheap yet nutritious source of calories, palm oil production has proven to be far from the golden child of workers rights.
Though some case studies and accounts continue to praise the positive socio-economic aspects of palm oil2 and it very much has dramatically improved the economies of producing countries, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for up to 90% of palm oil exports,3 the palm oil industry is rife with human rights abuses including the illegal seizure of indigenous peoples’ lands,16 labor trafficking, child labor, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and long-term abuse of temporary contracts.4 tweet this
Palm oil farm workers, in many cases, end up like indentured servants, struggling to pay back debt.5 Of course there also exist case studies of villages finding great prosperity from the introduction of plantations, though often new problems can arise from the cash influx like gambling and alcohol consumption.6
A concretely negative aspect of palm oil farming for humans, the environment and non-human animals alike are toxic pesticides. Pesticide usage isn’t monitored or controlled on plantations with around 25 different types being regularly employed. One of great concern is paraquat, the most toxic herbicide marketed over the past 60 years, which has been banned in 13 countries.7 tweet this Agrochemicals have been shown to be more harmful to women than men, and women on palm oil plantations, as with many crops, are responsible for the mixing, handling and spraying of the pesticides.8
This brings us into the environmental impact of palm oil production, which is irrevocably enmeshed with the impact on native species. The main elements of concern are the loss of forested land, leading to habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, and the extreme greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning peatland, which I’ll explain in a moment.
According to the World Watch Institute, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any other country besides China and the United States mainly due to palm oil production,9 with the World Resources Institute ranking its output as 7th in the world.10 While clear-cutting forested land in and of itself is environmentally destructive, the conversion of what’s called peatland into plantations is nothing short of devastating.
Peat is a water-logged, organic soil layer made up of dead and decaying plant matter that is rich with carbon. Peatlands are vital to the reduction of global warming as they absorb carbon and other greenhouse gasses, and Southeast Asia, where palm oil plantations are blossoming, contains three quarters of the world’s tropical peat-soil carbon.11 If all of this peat-stored carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be equivalent to the carbon emissions from about nine years of global fossil fuel use.12
These vital ecosystems are actually not ideal for palm oil plantations, and ample grasslands and degraded areas exist whereupon plantations could be built,13 however, companies can subsidize the cost of clearing peatland by selling the timber taken from the areas, and thus follow the most profitable route.14
To convert peatland into palm oil farms, it has to first be drained, which causes the peat to decompose, leading to heat-trapping emissions that can continue for decades. The peat eventually compacts, falling below the water table at which point it must again be drained. In addition, peat soil is often too acidic for oil palms and must have chemicals added for viability.
Possibly the most devastating practice for the environment and human and non-human animals alike is the intentional burning of peatland as an easy way to clear land for agriculture. These fires, which are some of the world’s largest fires on record, release hundreds of years’ worth of carbon and pollutants into the atmosphere and burn for weeks to months.
In dry years, the carbon emissions are astronomical. In 1997 fires in Indonesia released as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the United States had for that entire year.15 tweet this And when it comes to the environment, when you outdo the United Sates in your destruction, you know it’s bad. These fires can even become a public health hazard with the smoke and smog from fires in Indonesia in 2013 causing respiratory problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore.16
Of course these fires aren’t just destroying the forests, but also the living beings within them. Animals are burned alive while trying to flee and are often massacred by farm workers as they try to escape or purposefully driven back into the flames.17 In the 1997 fires alone, Borneo’s orangutan population was reduced by one-third when close to 8,000 of these already endangered primates were burned to death or directly killed. tweet this Poachers also take advantage of these burns to kill fleeing animals like the Sumatran rhino, which as of 2008 had a population of fewer than 275 individuals.
The threat this destruction poses to our world’s biodiversity cannot be overstated. Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet. While comprising only 3% of the world’s surface, it contains around 20% of all plant, animal and marine species on the planet! It has 4 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as “a biogeographical region rich in biodiversity but under anthropogenic threat [meaning from human-caused pollution] …and 70% of its original habitat must have been lost”18
The orangutan is certainly the face of palm oil’s devastation to non-human animals, with the critically endangered Sumatran population hovering around 7,300 as of 2004.19 But hundreds of other threatened species in Southeast Asia are also being horrifically impacted by palm oil production. The Sumatran tigers population, for example, was reported in 2008 to be a paltry 176–271 individuals left, with elephants and rhinos also at great risk.20 tweet this
With all of this destruction and violence, what’s being done about palm oil production’s long shadow? In 2004, the Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil was established with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. Composed of oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social NGOs, the round table has been largely criticized for not implementing its own standards.21
There are numerous loopholes in the RSPO’s certifications like plantations being “grandfathered” in and extremely subjective language for judging high value conservation forest versus forest green-lighted for clearing. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have called for objective parameters for sustainability, such as caps of greenhouse gas emissions, to no avail.22
Companies like Unilever, who are also RSPO members, are still sourcing their palm oil by unsustainable and ethically questionable methods, with plantation workers crashing the 2013 RSPO meeting with the call “don’t certify exploitation,”23 and three case studies finding rampant human rights violations at RSPO certified plantations in Indonesia.24
Novi Hardianto, the Center for Orangutan Protection habitat program coordinator says that despite the RSPO, “Forests are still cleared and orangutans are continually killed…All criteria on sustainable palm oil and certification process are merely public lies.”25
So, is there hope? And what are we to do as vegans or potential vegans when we walk into a store to make a purchase? Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? And, after all of this, is palm oil even vegan? tweet this
Palm oil, in theory, can be made sustainably by using degraded lands and grasslands instead of forests and on mineral soils instead of peatland.26 Increasing yield on existing plantations through tree breeding and better management, can reduce the need for using more land.27 Governments can call for mandatory labeling of palm oil on ingredient labels, as currently there are over 200 palm oil derivative terms in use.28
Groups like Palm Oil Investigations believe that mandatory labeling will place companies in a position to source Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, which is different from the RSPO’s stamp, because consumers will be aware of their use of palm oil and be able to demand sustainable sources. They also argue that contacting brands and encouraging them to shift to actual sustainable palm oil is even preferable to full boycotts. The logic being that palm oil companies aren’t going out of business anytime soon and if no one demands truly sustainable options, they’ll keep producing with their current cheap and destructive methods.29
Of course there’s also the argument that such consumer-driven tactics are vain attempts to fix the underlying problem of capitalism with capitalistic efforts, and that an entire overhauling of our economic systems and food distribution politics is needed.
Now I’d like to try and put this into the greater vegan framework, if I may. With any agricultural production, there will be destruction. I have a whole video on whether vegans kill more animals than non-vegans due to the field mice, rabbits and other animals who are unintentionally killed during harvests, as well as a video on whether you can be 100 percent vegan and whether you’re vegan “enough,” all of which address this issue.
Should we be aware of and constantly striving to educate ourselves about where our food and other products come from and whom they impact? Absolutely. The danger comes when we are so overwhelmed that we throw up our hands and think it’s not worth it to even try.
Animal agriculture, as I demonstrated in an extensive video, accounts for 51% of global GHG emissions, a staggering 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction, and is itself a leading cause of species extinction and loss of biodiversity, not to mention the deaths of trillions of beings every year.
I’m not here to play the numbers game or place the impact of palm oil beneath that of animal products. What I’m trying to say to those of you who are newly vegan or wanting to be vegan is: the efforts you are making are not discounted by those you are learning to make.
If we give up entirely because we aren’t perfect, what kind of impact are we having? Yes, we can always improve, which to me is the definition of veganism–doing the best with what we know and always working to educate ourselves and adjust our behavior accordingly.
So I would encourage you to look into this further for yourself. Check out the resources below. I’ve included links to lists of products known to contain palm oil,30 lists of palm-oil free products,31 a palm-oil-free make-your-own vegan butter recipe,32 and more.
Luckily, palm oil is in processed foods, so if you eat a whole foods diet, chances are, you’re largely avoiding it already. But do know that vegan food items, toiletries, cleaning products and more, can contain palm oil.
I hope that this has been helpful. The time it to produce this video clocks in at around 62 hours . If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep putting hours to bring you this educational resources, please check out the support page where you can make a tax-deductible donation.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you consider palm oil vegan? Whether you’re vegan or non-vegan, do you avoid palm oil in your products and if so, why? What do you think the solution is to this industry? Let me know in the comments.
— Emily Moran Barwick