Our love of palm oil is destroying forests. Here’s how to use less of it.

Cut down on deforestation.
deforestation in Indonesia
Indonesia is the country with the highest rate of deforestation. One reason: Clearing ground to make room for lucrative palm-oil farms. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Flickr

Even if you’ve never held a container of palm oil, you’ve probably purchased this ingredient in some form. The most commonly-used vegetable oil, it finds its way into food, cosmetics, and biofuel. Which is bad news for the world’s forests.

To feed the still-growing demand for this lucrative vegetable product, plantations in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which make 85 percent of all palm oil, are expanding. And in making room for these new Elaeis guineensis trees, many farmers are destroying rainforests.

In both these countries, between 1990 and 2005, more than half of new oil palm growth “occurred at the expense of forests,” according to a 2008 study in Conservation Letters. Today, palm oil is the primary force driving deforestation in these countries.

These lost plants not only supported incredible biodiversity, but also retained carbon dioxide, preventing the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere. Although farmers are replacing natural growth with other trees, oil palms don’t hang onto as much carbon as rainforests do. A new study in Nature Communications found that for every 2.5 acres of rainforest converted to palm oil production, it lost nearly 200 tons of carbon—roughly the mass of a blue whale.

Of course, deforestation affects a lot more than just 2.5 acres. In 2012, Indonesia earned the dubious honor of the country with the highest deforestation rate by wiping out more than 3,000 square miles of natural growth, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island. If all that land went to palm plantations (in reality, some goes to rubber and other plants, which retain slightly more CO2 than oil palm trees do), the atmosphere would be gaining 840,000 blue whales worth of carbon.

The new study suggests a few potential solutions to this problem. For example, farmers should only cut down forests if they can use that wood for long-term purposes like construction, rather than burning it and releasing its carbon load into the air. They should also try to leave vegetation on the ground instead of destroying it. This preexisting growth can act as a natural fertilizer.

However, measures like these require that the palm-oil industry regulates itself. For example, an organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, has developed guidelines for sustainable oil-palm growth. While this is an imperfect solution—environmentalists insist the RSPO’s standards are insufficient—it’s better than nothing.

But what about your average consumer? The easiest way to reduce palm oil use is to avoid the ingredient in your daily life. That means shopping carefully for products that don’t include this additive.

palm oil

By any other name

As you pick up food, cleaning, or beauty products, make sure to scan the ingredient list and see if it includes palm oil. If it does, see if the RSPO has certified it as sustainable.

Can’t find a list of ingredients? Apps can help. For example, with CodeCheck (for iOS and Android), you scan a product’s bar code to view the ingredients. CodeCheck also maintains a crowd-sourced database so it can tell you right away whether a product contains palm oil, and if so, whether the palm oil is sustainably sourced.

This is particularly helpful because palm oil doesn’t always appear under that name. You might see this product described as PO, palm kernel oil (PKO), or palm glycerides. It also appears under more scientific terms, such as the source tree’s Latin name, Elaeis guineensis.

If you see a chemical ingredient, keep an eye out to see whether it includes words derived from “palm,” such as palmate, palmitate, palmitic, palmityl, or palmolein. You might also see words based on “kernel,” such as kernelate. These terms can describe a non-palm-based oil, but are frequently applied to palm products.

For more details, check out the full list of terms assembled by the sustainability-focused publication TreeHugger. As they mention, palm derivatives can still make their way into products under the general term “vegetable oil.” If you’re determined to avoid even a whiff of palm, you may have to call the manufacturer and ask them if they use palm oil, and if so, whether they purchase it from sustainable sources.

Potential downsides

Unfortunately, individual action can only do so much to combat the destructive side effects of palm farming. And even positive action can have unintended side effects.

Take biofuels. The European Union recently banned subsidies that supported palm oil as a source for biofuels. However, experts worry that the oil-palm-growing countries will simply replace their palm plantations with other biofuel-friendly crops.

The same goes for boycotting palm oil—if you don’t buy it, manufacturers might eventually replace it with another vegetable oil. And that product will probably come with its own environmental baggage. As long as tropical countries have financial incentives to grow crops like oil palms, farms will continue to expand, often at the expense of rainforests.

So if you’re concerned about the environment, your goal should not be to shut down the industry entirely. Instead, pressure it to become more sustainable. Take the new Nature Communications study. It recommends solutions like plantations that coexist with natural growth instead of replacing it.