Palm Oil May be “Healthy” But Rainforests are Destroyed to Grow It

palm oil arabicWe may not realize it, but palm oil, made from both coconuts and palm nuts, is one of the main causes of the wholesale destruction of rainforests in many parts of the world, especially in Indonesia.

The Indonesian rainforests, or what’s left of them, are home to some of the most threatened animal species on earth; including the Sumatran tiger (only a handful remain in the wild), and Man’s first cousin, the orangutran, whose name translated in English means literally “forest people”.

Now why does this wholesale destruction of rainforests to produce palm oil have an effect on countries in the Middle East, many of which are mostly desert or near desert in their geographical makeup? Very simple: people in the Middle East are big purchasers of palm oil and products made from it.

An economic study was conducted in 2005 dealing with the demand for palm oil in MENA countries and found that the demand for palm oil was significantly dependent on the income of the area populations. The study found that more healthy substitutes such as soy bean oil being used in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey; and that the major substitute oil for palm oil in Saudi Arabia and Libya is now corn oil.

monkey face

Why does he have to suffer?

Rain forests in southern and southeastern Asia have been decimated in recent years by farmers who use “slash and burn” land clearing methods that resulted in huge fires in parts of Indonesia and helped increase the problem of global warming.

But these methods for the clearing of  tropical forests to provide land for growing palm trees and other crops is not only occurring in Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in African countries and those in South America as well.

The current issues surrounding the destruction of  rain forest for producing palm oil and other crops is part of an awareness campaign being carried out by environmental awareness groups like the Middle East EcoMena Community, which presented its “Seven reasons why not to buy or invest in palm oil”, and points out that palm oil is not only high in saturated fatty acids (like many types of household margarines) but is used in  producing foodstuffs which include some of the most popular brands of powdered milk, instant coffee, coffee cream, candy and other products (cosmetics etc.) in which palm oil is used in the production of these products.

By using these products we are investing in the destruction of tropical rainforests and the livelihood of their native people who depend on these forests for their very existence.

Palm oil tree (Elgeis Guineensis)

In addition to the production of foodstuffs, palm oil is also being used to produce bio fuels such as diesel fuel and as fuel to produce electricity in power plants. All of this is occurring at the expense of destruction of forestland and to the increase of global warming.

While it is not possible to prevent the importation of lower priced palm oil and its use in both foodstuffs and cosmetics (take a look at the ingredients of many types of liquid hand soaps and sunscreen lotions) we can at least try to avoid purchasing products which contain it and to demand that it be removed as an ingredient in these products.

The bio fuel issue may be more difficult to deal with, however; and as a result much more environmentally friendly vegetable substances, such as algae are being developed.

Despite efforts to the contrary, palm oil use is likely to continue as long as there is a demand for it; much to the sorrow of the world’s decreasing rain forests and the unique ecosystems they support.

Read more on biofuels and edible oils:
With So Much Oil and Gas, is Biofuel a Viable Middle East Option?
Kiima Doubles Chromosomes  to Make More Plant Power
Is Margarine Your Best Choice?

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2 thoughts on “Palm Oil May be “Healthy” But Rainforests are Destroyed to Grow It”

  1. Maurice says:

    Excuse me dear folks at, but coconuts ARE from a species of palm, although not from the same Elgeis Guineensis that is grown to make palm oil.

    That is what I meant. Coconuts, by the way, are high in saturated fatty acids. And forests are also depleted to grow coconuts.

  2. Mr Picow unfortunately displays his ignorance of the subject that he is writing about by declaring in his opening paragraph that palm oil is made from both coconuts and palm nuts. For his information the oil extracted from the mesocarp of the palm oil fruit is called “palm oil” and oil extracted from the coconut is called “coconut oil”. That’s universally accepted and there’s no ground for dispute here.

    His other statement in his opening paragraph that palm oil is one of the main causes of the wholesale destruction of rainforests in many parts of the world, especially in Indonesia, is hotly disputed and, in our view, rightly so.

    In some ways, the discerning public’s view of the actions by green advocates’ such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth’s (FOE) towards palm oil should be similar to ours – something isn’t right!

    After all, palm oil is the most sustainable of all oilseed crops. Yet these green advocates could see it fit to accuse palm oil of causing massive deforestation and peat lands and playing havoc with ecosystems and biodiversity and claim that deforestation costs anything between $2-5tn dollars a year and causes 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with both Greenpeace and FOE shrilly demanding that growth of palm oil be reined in.

    Whilst acknowledging that palm oil fuels the developing economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, Greenpeace and FOE claim that it is also irrevocably damaging them. As demand for oil palm grows in the EU and in the burgeoning economies of India, China and the rest of the world, both green groups bayed that we will start paiying the environmental costs soon.

    What is interesting is that both groups which hail from the UK remain silent over the 33 millions tons of carbon emitted during the annual process of coal mining in the UK. These green groups too are conspicuous by their silence over the dearth of forest cover in their home countries. As a comparison, the UK from where these green groups hail have forest cover of 11% and yet they have the gall to question Indonesia’s commitment to preserve 25% of its rainforests!

    The supreme irony is that the cultivation of palm oil which has been hailed recently by researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands as “the most efficient energy crop,” is systematically demonized as destructive of rainforest and contributing to global warming.

    The university’s finding is a rejection of environmental NGOs and the anti-palm oil lobbyists who consistently claim that palm oil is unsustainable.

    Its research found that palm oil, sugar cane and sweet sorghum are currently the most sustainable energy crops. These commodities also produce “far smaller quantities of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels”.

    The university’s analysis considered nine different energy crops against nine different sustainability criteria with palm oil coming out on top while biofuel from maize from the United States and wheat from Europe scored far lower.

    The report’s author, Sander de Vries, concluded that sustainable sugar canes and oil palms get the most energy per hectare and cause the least environmental damage.

    Considering that palm oil has a productivity with annual yields of 4-5 metric tons per hectare, that is close to ten times that of its nearest competitors such as soy, rapeseed and sunflower, curtailing palm oil cultivation would mean that ten times more rainforests w0ould have to be cleared if palm oil planters switched to other edible oil crops!

    Many reports published in peer reviewed journals have verified this fact.

    Dr Paul Nelson, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has been studying the palm oil industry in Papua New Guinea for more than 10 years.

    Dr Nelson says whether we like it or not, palm oil is one of the most important crops for people living in the humid tropics and one of the main land uses of choice after rainforest clearing.

    “There are some people saying we should boycott palm oil,” Dr Nelson said.”I think that will have zero effect on forest-clearing rates, in fact it would have a negative effect because there’s a certain amount of vegetable oil that’s needed in the world and palm oil makes up about one-third of that.”

    Without palm oil, inevitably companies would turn to soy bean oil, which was far more destructive for rainforests, he said.

    “The closest contender to palm oil in terms of what we can produce per hectare is soy bean and you need seven times as much area,” Dr Nelson said. “Soy bean needs to be cultivated each year so you get things like soil erosion.”

    In comparison, palms can grow for several years without needing cultivation and the trees require less fertiliser and pesticides.

    In the view of, rather than throwing wild unsubstantiated accusations at palm oil, green groups and your writer would do well to engage with the palm oil industry to find a solution that is fair and acceptable to all.

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