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Palm Oil

Overview

Grown only in the tropics, the oil palm tree produces high-quality oil used primarily for cooking in developing countries. It is also used in food products, detergents, cosmetics and, to a small extent, biofuel. Palm oil is a small ingredient in the U.S. diet, but more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil—it’s found in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream.

Palm oil is a very productive crop. It offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production than other vegetable oils. Global production of and demand for palm oil is increasing rapidly. Plantations are spreading across Asia, Africa and Latin America. But such expansion comes at the expense of tropical forests—which form critical habitats for many endangered species and a lifeline for some human communities.

WWF envisions a global marketplace based on socially acceptable and environment-friendly production and sourcing of palm oil. We aim to encourage increased demand for, and use of, goods produced using such practices.

Ice Cream

Palm oil is a small ingredient in the U.S. diet, but more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil—it’s found in lipstick, soaps, detergents and even ice cream.

Creating Ripples for Positive Change

Recognizing their role in influencing more sustainable development of palm oil, Johnson & Johnson has publicly committed to source 100% of its ingredients derived from palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015.

palm oil basket

Impacts

Coastal tropical rainforest

Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations. This clearing has destroyed critical habitat for many endangered species—including rhinos, elephants and tigers. Burning forests to make room for the crop is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Intensive cultivation methods result in soil pollution and erosion and water contamination.

Large-scale forest conversion

Many vast monocrop oil palm plantations have displaced tropical forests across Asia, Latin America and West Africa. Around 90% of the world's oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth. In these places, there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.

Loss of critical habitat for endangered species

Large-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations has a devastating impact on a huge number of plant and animal species. Oil palm production also leads to an increase in human-wildlife conflict as populations of large animals are squeezed into increasingly isolated fragments of natural habitat. The habitats destroyed frequently contain rare and endangered species or serve as wildlife corridors between areas of genetic diversity. Even national parks have been severely impacted. Forty-three percent of Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra—which was established to provide habitat for the endangered Sumatran Tiger—has now been overrun with illegal palm oil plantings.

Burning is a common method for clearing vegetation in natural forests as well as within oil palm plantations. The burning of forests releases smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Fires in peat areas are particularly difficult to put out. The smoke and haze from these blazes have health consequences throughout Southeast Asia.

A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. While oil palm plantations are not large users of pesticides and fertilizers overall, the Indiscriminate application of these materials can pollute surface and groundwater sources.

Erosion occurs when forests are being cleared to establish plantations, and can also be caused by planting trees in inappropriate arrangements. The main cause of erosion is the planting of oil palms on steep slopes. Erosion causes increased flooding and silt deposits in rivers and ports. Eroded areas require more fertilizer and other inputs, including repair of roads and other infrastructure.

The practice of draining and converting tropical peat forests in Indonesia is particularly damaging, as these "carbon sinks" store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world. Additionally, forest fires used to clear vegetation in the establishment of oil palm plantations are a source of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. Due to its high deforestation rate, Indonesia is the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gasses.

What WWF Is Doing

palm tree leave

With better management practices, the palm oil industry could provide benefits without threatening some of our most breathtaking natural treasures. Oil palm plantations can stop operating at the expense of rainforests by applying stringent production criteria to all stages of palm oil manufacture.

WWF works on a number of fronts to achieve this, including:

  • Defining, implementing and promoting better practices for sustainable palm oil production through our Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is a large, international group of palm oil producers, palm oil buyers, and environmental and social groups
  • Encouraging companies to use certified sustainable palm oil in the products they make and sell
  • Eliminating incentives for palm oil production that lead to the destruction of forests

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