What’s the Deal with Palm Oil?


Many vegans have sworn off palm oil, claiming it is not an ingredient that can be called “cruelty-free,” even though it is not an animal product. While this discussion has been raging for years within the vegan community, if you haven’t heard yet, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here’s the scoop:

According to a paper created by the World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia called Guidelines for Better Management Practices on Avoidance, Mitigation and Management of Human-Orangutan Conflict in and around Oil Palm Plantations:

“In 2006, Indonesia and Malaysia accounted for 83-percent and 89-percent of global exports of palm oil respectively, with export trends expected to double by the year 2020. It is recognized that there are environmental pressures on oil palm expansion to areas having high conservation values, including orangutan habitat, causing a significant decline in orangutan populations, particularly as palm oil can only be cultivated in tropical countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.... It has been demonstrated that oil palm plantations can only support 0 to 20-percent of the mammals, reptiles and birds that the land supported prior to conversion. Where natural ecosystems have been converted to other land uses, conflicts arise between humans and wildlife, resulting in wildlife being killed, and poached for trade. This includes orangutans, the only great ape found in Asia. Today, orangutans are threatened by extinction in the wild.”

From the World Wildlife Fund’s website:

“Of all WWF’s priority agricultural commodities, palm oil poses the most significant threat to the widest range of endangered megafauna – including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans.”

It is obvious that there are real problems with cultivating oil palms. Creating an oil palm plantation typically consists of clear cutting the existing forest and then burning the remnants to clear the land to plant oil palms. This causes loss of forests that were teeming with wildlife and it displaces or kills the wildlife. The remaining wildlife that dare to enter the oil palm plantations then have encounters with workers that often ends in the killing of the animal. While killing orangutans is illegal, it is difficult to enforce as it is often done without witnesses, and the killers claim self defense when questioned. Baby animals are often orphaned and the babies are sold to zoos or as pets (orangutans are often chained in the backyard alone-- having this sort of “pet” is considered a status symbol). However, oil palm is such a large source of income for Indonesia and Malaysia, it is not possible to simply ban oil palm farming. Instead there is an attempt to improve the situation by using “guidelines.”

The question is— do these guidelines work? This is an important question because “Globally, palm oil production has increased by more than 50-percent since 1990, a trend that is predicted to reach 80-percent (approximately 41 million tons) by the year 2020. In Indonesia, palm oil is one of the nation’s major sources of income. Of approximately 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations across the world, 6 million hectares are established in Indonesia, while production of Crude Palm Oil (CPO) has increased from 2.66 tons in 1991 to 6.55 tons in 2001.” (WWF)

Today, both Sumatran and Borneo orangutans are threatened by extinction. The World Conservation Union classifies the Kalimantan orangutan as Endangered, while its relative in Sumatra has been classified as Critically Endangered. (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2002)

Experts tell us that “Orangutan survival is threatened by habitat loss and illegal killing. Most wild populations will disappear over the next few decades unless threats are abated. Saving orangutans is ultimately in the hands of the governments and people of Indonesia and Malaysia, which need to ensure that habitats of viable orangutan populations are protected from deforestation and well managed to ensure no hunting takes place. Companies working in orangutan habitat also have to play a much bigger role in habitat management. Although the major problems and the direct actions required to solve them—reducing forest loss and hunting—have been known for decades, orangutan populations continue to decline. Orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo have declined by between 2,280 and 5,250 orangutans annually over the past 25 years. As the total current population for the two species is some 60,000 animals in an area of about 90,000 km2, there is not much time left to make conservation efforts truly effective.” (The abstract of Meijaard, Erik, et al., Not by science alone: why orangutan conservationists must think outside the box. The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology February 2012 (by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences), pages 29-44.) 

While many are hoping that the guidelines, which contain “Best Management Practices” (BMP) will change things, there is a lot of criticism about the implementation. According to the WWF, “The palm oil industry has not applied BMP in a consistent way, which has drawn concern from the industry and environmental stakeholders. In fact, BMP have not effectively addressed conservation issues such as sustainable wildlife management.”

Animal Rights activist Patty Shenker with a friend at an orangutan sanctuary in Indonesia.

Manufacturers of products that contain palm oil have been receiving lots of letters and even petitions from concerned consumers. Companies that cater to vegans, such as Earth Balance, have been repeatedly asked to reformulate their products and replace the palm oil with an ingredient that does less harm to the planet, especially the orangutans. They have refused, claiming that in order to keep the partially hydrogenated oils out of their products and maintain the taste and quality, palm oil is the only option.  

Other companies like Unilever (the largest user of palm oil in the US) and Cargill (the largest user of palm oil in the world) have also been subject to pressure. For instance, Greenpeace has used its ships to block shipments of palm oil from entering European ports. Greenpeace also relentlessly campaigned Unilever and got them to agree to back a moratorium on deforestation to grow palm oil.

These agreements made by corporations who have so much to gain in the continued large-scale production of palm oil are met with skepticism by many conservationists, environmentalists, and animal rights activists. In fact, the most highly respected organization for setting the criteria for what is considered “sustainable” palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Greenpeace has warned that the RSPO is actually an industry-led consortium. In other words, the corporations that use palm oil are the ones who make up the group that is supposedly policing farmers. These corporations get together and come up with standards that will allow their products to carry an RSPO-certified logo, which will give consumers confidence in their products. Greenpeace states on their website, “…there’s little to stop companies having certain parts of their operations certified by the RSPO while they continue to convert rainforests and peatlands into oil palm plantations elsewhere, giving them a green fig leaf to cover up their terrible environmental standards….With RSPO-labelled products appearing in a supermarket near you from sometime next year, there’ll still be no way to tell good palm oil from bad.”

But, many conservationists argue, these are the only standards we have to possibly protect species and habitat. And many are working hard to strengthen standards and create incentives for farmers to abide by them. Is this hope that more “guidelines” will save the orangutan just foolhardy? Orangutan-Republik.org states, “On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable, as their development is strongly regulated by laws in both Indonesia and Malaysia. However, an issue that many non governmental organizations have raised with the RSPO is its lack of ability to properly enforce rules, and the danger that RSPO membership is becoming a way for palm oil producers to present to the buying public a veneer of sustainability without any actual desire to produce their palm oil sustainably. The RSPO, in response, points out that it is a voluntary organisation, and is limited in its capacity to fully sanction companies that break its rules.”

In a press release from March 2015, Earth Balance announced that it has decided to join other companies in partnering with the RSPO. In a letter to PETA, posted on the PETA2 website, Earth Balance responds to an inquiry with this: “Thirty percent of our palm oil comes from Brazil. Our Brazil-sourced palm oil is 100% organic and is used in all of our organic products (and because orangutans are not native to South America, the Brazilian palm industry does not adversely impact their well being). The remaining 70-percent of our palm oil comes from responsible sources in peninsular Malaysia, which are all members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the leading global organization developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil production. We insist on continuing assurances from our suppliers that all palm fruit oil purchased for Earth Balance complies with the RSPO policies, and we are committed to terminating any suppliers that violate these policies.

"In addition, we purchase Green Palm Certificates, which work a lot like carbon credits. The money used to purchase these certificates helps improve the infrastructure and practices behind sustainable palm oil. Moreover, we are supporting the action-oriented, on-the-ground conservation work of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in Indonesian Borneo. OFI is a non-governmental, non-profit organization, led by world-renown primatologist and conservationist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas. OFI is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans that are adversely affected by the palm oil industry, and has been working for more than 40 years to conserve rainforest habitat and educate people throughout the world about the orangutans’ plight. Earth Balance is especially proud to be a financial supporter of OFI’s ongoing initiative to return 330 wild-born, ex-captive rehabilitated orangutans back to the wild, into biologically-rich, protected forest, where they rightfully belong.”

This sounds nice and the comments on the PETA2 site were ones like “what a relief that Earth Balance is doing the right thing.” But, before you decide for yourself, you might be interested in hearing what Orangutan Republik says about the Green Palm certificates.

According to orangutanrepublik.org, “Green-Palm certificates are given if a plantation proves they are producing palm oil sustainably. However, this just means that the company has at least one sustainable plantation. The Green Palm certificate issued can be sold to another company. The palm oil produced on that certified plantation is not sold or kept separately; it is simply put in to the same tanker as the unsustainably sourced palm oil, and shipped to manufacturers. In essence, the Green Palm certificate does not guarantee consumers are consuming sustainable palm oil” (This information was also published in The Guardian, UK, in 2009).

Much stronger language against the RSPO can be found in articles on the Rainforest Action Network’s website (RAN.org), even lambasting Girl Scout cookie makers: “Girl Scouts USA and anyone else touting RSPO membership as a green seal of approval — or anyone who even claims that RSPO membership makes a company’s products ‘orangutan friendly’ — are gravely misleading the public with false claims. Member companies have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights — all of which are prohibited in the RSPO principles and criteria. In essence RSPO membership does not ensure that deforestation, orangutan extinction, and climate change are not found in Girl Scout cookies.”

RAN continues to criticize the RSPO for having conflicts of interest, which result in lax requirements for membership, a cumbersome complaints process for reporting violations, and lack of oversight and enforcement. “Until RSPO membership means more than simply paying a few thousand dollars a year in membership fees, any company or organization that claims any product made by an RSPO member is orangutan or forest friendly is grossly misleading the public. Orangutans and forests will only be truly protected in Sumatra and Borneo once expansion of palm oil in fragile tropical forests ceases and a moratorium on deforestation for palm oil is both adopted and implemented.”

If you’re looking for more criticism of the RSPO from environmentalists, Mongabay environmental news organization (Mongabay.com) has a collection of critical articles on the RSPO and its failure to meet sustainability objectives for palm oil production. However, the most memorable thing I read was on Orangutan-Rebublic.org: “In 2009, First Resources, a Hong Kong based palm oil company and member of the RSPO, was found by the non governmental organization International Animal Rescue to be clearing land illegally in West Kalimantan, and was responsible for a number of orangutan deaths, and for the capture of infant orangutans. After these orangutans were rescued, an official complaint was made to the RSPO. While this company does not have any of its plantations certified as being sustainable, its membership in the RSPO states it must adhere to the Principles and Criteria of the organisation. Although the RSPO agreed to look in to the matter, three years later First Resources is still a member of the RSPO, there is no mention of the complaint on the RSPO website, and the company is free to advertise its membership in the RSPO on its own website, under its commitment to sustainability initiatives, even though it has made no effort whatsoever to behave sustainably. While the difference between being an RSPO member and having your production being RSPO certified are two very different things, for consumers, this is not always clear, and for many, the RSPO is a smokescreen, behind which palm oil producers sit.” (posted in 2011).

In response to the criticism of the RSPO, another (industry-driven) group has sprung up. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) “aims to support the RSPO through building on RSPO standards and commitments and by both demonstrating innovation to implement RSPO existing standards as well as with additional critical issues.” (POIG.com). POIG says that their focus is on three thematic areas: “environmental responsibility, partnerships with communities, and corporate and product integrity.” Earth Balance is a fan. In fact, they announced on their website: “At Earth Balance we believe that palm oil can and should be responsibly sourced and sustainably produced. As such, by the end of 2015 we plan to source 100-per-cent of our palm oil products from companies whose entire palm oil operations are independently verified as meeting responsible palm oil requirements set forth by the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) – one of the leading organizations dedicated to solving the palm oil issue.”

I applaud any company that seems to make an effort to improve the plight of wildlife and habitats. I realize that the only power behind “guidelines” is when the food companies who buy palm oil from the farmers require them to abide by the guidelines with the threat of not buying from them otherwise. However, I can’t help but wonder how it is that Earth Balance plans to police their farmers and make sure that they are really following through with abiding by these guidelines. After all, poaching has been illegal for a long time and even the most brave, intelligent local forces cannot seem to stop people from doing that. It seems that whenever there is profit to be made from the exploitation of natural resources, it will happen.

Orangutan Republik has hope. They state on their website: “Although it needs improvement, the RSPO is currently the only organisation able to regulate an industry that poses the greatest threat to orangutan populations in the wild. As the use of palm oil increases and a greater threat is placed on desirable lowland tropical forests, it is more imperative than ever that business leaders are encouraged to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and suppliers are put under pressure, by both organizations and individual members of the public, to ensure the palm oil they use in their products does not come from plantations established at the expense of rainforests and endangered species.”

While it may seem that things are moving in the right direction, whenever enforcement by the RSPO has been exercised, it has “angered the Malaysian government and palm oil body, who in 2011 announced plans to form its own sustainable palm oil regulatory body, implying that the RSPO was becoming too strict (Mongabay, 2011). While this has been interpreted by some as a sign that Malaysian, and Indonesian, palm oil producers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of sustainable palm oil, it is feared that if companies pull away from the RSPO, it would make the industry’s only recognised regulatory body largely irrelevant.” (OrangutanRepublik.org)

Conflict is rife in the realm of palm oil production, that is for sure. Food producers who use palm oil may be interested to know that “researchers at the University of Bath have developed a way to chemically engineer an oily yeast that can mimic palm oil’s most sought after properties. Using Metschnikowia pulcherrima, a yeast historically used in the South African wine industry, scientists believe they can develop a truly versatile and planet-friendly alternative to palm oil!” (OneGreenPlanet.org) Sounds like a good solution to a big problem!


  1. Well said! Unfortunately lots of vegans (including myself until late into my transition into eating and living a plant based, seemingly cruelty free life)are not aware of why palm oil demand is so devastating. Like with anything else, we need further education on the specifics. While palm oil is used in many products-both vegan and non vegan alike- vegans are probably the largest consumer of palm oil and could actually affect how palm oil is sourced via demand.

    • Couldn’t agree more with your comment about the importance of raising awareness among vegans regarding palm oil. There is much to read on the topic, and the sources listed in this article are good places to start. You can also go to http://www.PalmFreeCouncil.com. They have a lot of information regarding the many issues with palm oil cultivation and advocate for eating vegan and palm free with menu ideas on Instagram and facebook.


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