Palm oil and deforestation

Deforestation can release large volumes of greenhouse gases. This is particularly severe in tropical forests growing on peat soils. In just one province of Indonesia (Riau Province, Sumatra), the average annual greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2007 were an estimated 0.21 gigatons of CO2, arising from deforestation, forest degradation and resulting peat fires.

The video below was recorded in May and June 2010 and clearly shows that tiger habitat is still being illegally destroyed. This camera is just 200 metres from another video camera that captured a tigress and her cubs passing by in October 2009.

Forests do not need to be cleared to be replaced by palm oil plantations. About 300–700 million hectares of abandoned land globally could potentially be used for oil palm plantations, 20 million hectares of it in Indonesia alone.

Are there substitutes to palm oil?

There are a number of reasons why we continue to use palm oil in our products. As a crop, palm oil is 10 times more productive per hectare than other oil crops, such as soybean, sunflower or rapeseed. While it is high in saturated fat, unlike butter or other animal fats palm oil does not contain bad trans-fats.

The palm oil industry is large and employs hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. A report by the World Bank and Asia Development Bank stated that the Malaysian palm oil industry currently employs 570,000 people and produces export earnings of more than RM68 billion (about $22 billion Australian dollars) per year.

While it is true that in some instances palm oil can be substituted for an alternate vegetable oil, it is an extremely versatile and abundant ingredient. Palm oil can, if produced sustainably, still be used to make the products we use every day without the expense to the environment.

So can palm oil be produced sustainably?
Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) fruits being loaded on truck.,Tesso Nilo, Riau Province, Sumatra, ... / ©: Volker Kess / WWF-Canon
Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) fruits being loaded on truck.,Tesso Nilo, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia.
© Volker Kess / WWF-Canon
As few as 400 Sumatran tigers remain in Indonesia – about 12% of the estimated global population of 3,200 tigers.
In South-East Asia, alone, the likely equivalent of 300 football fields are deforested every hour, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,000 orang-utans each year. Some 90% of orang-utan habitat has been lost and at the current rate of deforestation, orang-utans could be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years.