The Oil Palm Debate: Fatal Chop or Wonder Crop?

Oil Palm Plantation in East Asia

A lot of you will have been watching the new David Attenborough documentary series: 7 Worlds One Planet. It highlights a lot of the depressing realities that the natural world faces as a consequence of human action – one of the more profound scenes that stuck with me was in episode 2, where the orangutan tries to fight off the digger cutting down the trees for an oil palm plantation in a futile attempt to save his home.

Orangutan seen in Seven Worlds One Planet attempting to protect its land from the digger

Oil Palm has recently become an issue that’s moving towards the forefront of the public’s concerns. However it can be difficult to know what you can do as a consumer to prevent adding to the problem. Do you cut out palm oil altogether? Do you just buy sustainable palm oil products?

Surprisingly, however, oil palm gets a really bad rep when it is actually the most productive and efficient vegetable oil crop! Many products require palm oil for preservation and consistency as it’s a solid at room temperature, allowing us to have things like margarine, cookies and even lipstick; in fact, palm oil is in a huge 50% of packaged supermarket products. It’s also present in almost every soap, shampoo and detergent due to its ability to remove oil and dirt. WWF has a great interactive site where you can see why Palm Oil is present in so many everyday products.

So oil is essential in the products we use in every day life – why don’t we just cut it out and buy products with say, sunflower oil? Palm oil is an incredibly productive crop, with roughly 7,250 litres of Palm Oil produced PER HECTARE per year. Whereas you’d need a lot more land to produce that much sunflower oil.

However, in Europe where most of the land is purposed for agriculture already, fields full of sunflowers are a beautiful and welcome sight; especially when compared to miles upon miles of oil palm trees cutting up the rainforest views. The land that was covered by forests in European countries was converted to farmland long before our life time so we have no emotional connection to it. However the horrors we’ve witnessed on adverts, documentaries and the news occurring from habitat destruction have all already haunted our own lands and we’re living off the benefits from it. These countries still with thriving forest land resent Europe for having already profited off the destruction of their own land whilst trying to prevent others’, meaning less income in those potentially poorer communities.

Sunflower field for farming

However we can still support these communities AND enjoy the benefits of this efficient crop. Sustainable Palm Oil is something becoming more common in products (although still difficult to find) and through the public voicing these environmental concerns, is something that companies can recognise will attract consumers. Sustainable Palm Oil is where the oil is “produced by plantations which have been independently audited and certified against the RSPO – Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil standard”.

The RSPO was founded in 2004 and 40% of palm oil producers globally are members. This is an excellent standard that protects, conserves and manages the land, it’s employees and the production process in order to have as little environmental impact and as high a quality of life to employees and surrounding communities as possible. RSPO prides itself on being completely transparent and promoting transparency within the palm oil trade. Their full standards are available here.

The RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil symbol shown on packaging of products containing sustainable Palm Oil

Because the Palm Oil issue is a relatively new concern for the general public, companies don’t tend to advertise whether they use sustainable Palm Oil or not. You can look for the RSPO symbol on packaging (image above), although this isn’t always displayed and usually will be very small in an obscure place on the product. Hopefully as companies realise this is a priority for consumers, this will be better advertised and it will be easier for us to buy products with peace of mind and without a bunch of research beforehand. Until then, Chester Zoo has compiled a great shopping list, breaking down brands that source their palm oil sustainably by food type. I was going to include this list as an image but it’s actually too long for me to do that, which makes me proud that so many companies are choosing to be agriculturally and environmentally responsible. Furthermore, anything you buy from M&S, Waitrose or Lush will be sustainably sourced as well as any own brand food from Iceland.

Using certified brands and products won’t solve this issue completely and there are, of course, problems and controversy with sustainable Palm Oil, but it’s a step in the right direction and a way to make a difference as an individual.

If this post interests you then visit these websites for more information surrounding Palm Oil and Sustainability: RSPO, National Geographic, WWF, GreenPalm.

Palm Oil production figure:

Oil Palm Plantation image:

Orangutan image:

Sunflower farm image:

RSPO Certified Palm Oil Logo image:

3 thoughts on “The Oil Palm Debate: Fatal Chop or Wonder Crop?

  1. Please cross-check your claim of ‘Orangutan seen in Seven Worlds One Planet attempting to protect its land from the digger’. The original video clearly shows the orangutan is chased by rescuers who tranquilize him. It is even claimed that the digger downed the tree it was in to ensure the orangutan didn’t fall out of the tree. IAR manages to safely rescue the orangutan…


    1. Thanks for your comment. I was aware of this from watching the doc; it’s always relieving to see these gorgeous creatures are being protected. The point I was trying to make was that the orangutan is exhibiting defensive behaviour against the digger and the destructive human presence in its habitat (regardless of the intent). I’ll edit for clarity! Thank you for your feedback and I hope you enjoyed the rest of the article 🙂


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