• Green Iowa AmeriCorps

The Hidden Cost of Palm Oil

Max Lieberman

Palm oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world.  It’s found in not just food products, but also in all sorts of personal and home products, from lipstick to laundry detergent.  Demand for palm oil is increasing in the United States as many companies have begun using it as a replacement for unhealthy  trans-unsaturated fatty acids, known usually as “trans fats.”  In fact, palm oil or products derived from palm oil are found in about half of the products you’d find in the supermarket!

Unfortunately, palm oil production has had a devastating impact on communities and ecosystems all over the globe.  Palm oil plantations continue to spread across Indonesia, Malaysia, West and Central Africa, and Latin America.  Many plantations are founded on land that was formerly tropical forest, which has been clear by brutal slash and burn methods to make way for palm plantations.  Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, and palm oil is driving deforestation globally.


Orangutans, native to Indonesia and Malaysia, are currently listed as endangered (http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/orangutan).  Palm oil production threatens orangutans in a few ways.  Much of their land has been lost to plantations.  Once their habitat has been cleared, they are often killed on palm oil plantations because they are perceived as agricultural pests.  With not just the orangutan, but sixty percent of primates facing extinction (https://news.mongabay.com/2017/01/running-out-of-time-60-percent-of-primates-sliding-toward-extinction/), this crisis is urgent.


Additionally, Palm oil plantations have a serious record of human rights violations (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/case-studies-palm-oil-and-human-rights-abuses/), including exposing workers to toxic chemicals, forcing their employees to work in extremely dangerous and demanding conditions, and exploiting child labor.

In addition to these global issues, palm oil is bad for Iowa!  About a quarter of Iowa soybeans are exported, and palm oil is the major competitor for soybean oil internationally.  As palm oil becomes increasingly available, Iowa soybean growers will face more competition.

If you want to avoid consuming palm oil, the World Wildlife Fund offers a handy guide to help you learn what to look for (http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil).  This guide includes both common names for palm oil ingredients, and two sustainable palm oil certifications you can look for!

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