‘8’ Powerful Reasons Why Palm Oil is Bad for the Environment
Palm oil is a popular edible vegetable oil that is nearly in everything from doughnuts to chocolate among other household products like shampoo, deodorant, lipstick, and toothpaste. In fact, due to its versatility, almost 50-percent of packaged things people buy in supermarkets have palm oil. The oil is harvested from the fruit of palm trees also scientifically known as Elaeis guineensis.
The palm oil can be sourced from squeezing the fleshy fruit or crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit. Palm oil trees are native to Africa but they are popularly grown in South-East Asia with Malaysia and Indonesia making up over 85-percent of the global supply. The palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature. It is also stable at high temperature, which explains its use in fried products.
The palm oil is also resistant to oxidation, which explains its use in most products to help prolong shelf life. The oil is also colorless and odorless, which explains why most bakers prefer it over other alternatives as it does not change the smell or look of the food. In addition to being used as an ingredient in most products, palm oil is also widely used as cooking oil.
‘8’ Great Reasons Why Palm Oil is Bad for the Environment
There is a common trend of deforestation in all areas where palm oil is currently being grown; from Indonesia to Papua, Malaysia, and New Guinea. In Malaysia, for example, the deforestation rate from 2005 to 2010 as per satellite data was around 2-percent annually with Sarawak area experiencing the highest rate of deforestation of about 8-percent.
Research has also found that forests disturbed by severe drainage or logging are not stable and are likely to experience a further change after the initial interference. The increasing demand for palm oil has, therefore, contributed to the expansion of palm oil plantations resulting in the destruction of tropical forests to accommodate new plantations.
As an example, a study done in Southeast Asia found that 45-percent of the land currently being used for palm oil production was a forest in 1990.
2. Ecological impacts including loss of biodiversity and loss of natural habitats
The massive and rapid expansion of palm oil plantations has led to the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of natural habitats. The change of land use from forest to palm oil cultivation causes several consequences that include increased erosion, increased risk of fire, and pollution that threatens the survival of both plant and animal species. There is also more likeliness of soil subsidence due to fires and drainage.
The soil subsidence is also associated with the increased likeliness of saltwater intrusion and flooding. Furthermore, the increasing palm oil fields are reported to have the potential of leading to increased use of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers that can enter water bodies through groundwater seepage or runoff in turn affecting aquatic biodiversity.
3. Increased health risks to humans
The increased use of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers due to the ever increasing palm oil plantations has the potential of resulting in the seepage of the agrochemicals into groundwater and the subsequent contamination of domestic water that can cause various health risks such as certain types of cancers, growth problems, and reproductive disorders.
The cutting down of forests and the harvesting of peats which serve as natural carbon sinks can also heighten the formation of ground-level ozone that can negatively affect the health of people by increasing the risks of bronchitis, asthma, and lung cancer.
4. Socio-economic and livelihood loss
Although the growth of palm oil will likely lead to increased income in households, the long-term impact of palm oil can be detrimental to indigenous societies as most of them depend on the forest areas that are converted in pail oil plantations for their survival and livelihood. The change of land use from farming crops to palm oil cultivation will also likely lead to instability of food prices as overall crop cultivation reduces.
Moreover, the long term effect of cultivating palm oil is increased global warming, which will negatively affect the production of crops thereby resulting in low crop yields. The increased flooding as a result of global warming can also wash away the nutrient-rich topsoil hence causing a decline in crop yields.
Accordingly, the declining yields may push farmers to use expensive fertilizers, which further reduces profitability. Also with big multinationals looking for more land to cultivate the plant, there are increasing cases of community displacement due to illegal land grabs or forced relocation.
5. Increased carbon emissions, speeding up global warming
Forests store large amounts of carbon in vegetation and peat and this, therefore, means that the change in land use and the burning or clearing of plantation cover increase carbon release into the environment. This occurs when farmers expand their farming areas by converting forests into large scale palm oil plantations.
In the process of clearing forests to create space for palm oil farmland, the living biomass is destroyed causing a decrease in natural carbon sinks and an increase in net carbon in the planet. Increased carbon emissions is a recipe for global warming and climate change.
6. Increased methane emissions
Methane is formed by methanogenic bacteria living in the anaerobic peat layers that are saturated with water from gaseous or organic carbon compounds. In the more oxic peat layers, the methane is oxidized into carbon dioxide that plays an important role in ensuring carbon balance.
In as much the amount of methane produced from tropical forests’ peat is negligible, the change in land use can cause raised soil temperatures that stimulate the process of methanogenesis.
Furthermore, the presence of flooded areas and drainage canals due to palm oil cultivation can promote the emissions of methane and considering that the warming potential of methane is 25 times that of carbon dioxide, even a slight increase in methane emission can be highly damaging by increasing the global temperatures.
7. Species extinction
Cutting down forests puts so many animals at risk of poaching. The tropical forests, considered the most ideal areas for palm oil cultivation are home to many plant and animal species. In fact, the tropics in Southeast Asia are considered the most biodiverse forests with high levels of endemism including the endangered fauna such as Sumatran tiger, rhinoceros, Asian elephant, orangutan, and birds of paradise among others.
A good example is Indonesia. Despite only covering about 1.3-percent of the world land surface, Indonesia is home to 17-percent of all bird species, 10-percent of all flowering plant species, 16-percent of all amphibians, 16-percent of all reptiles, and 12-percent of all mammals.
The change of land use from forests to palm oil farming in such forest areas has been reducing the habitat quality and coverage areas thus increasing the rate of species extinction. Roads built to provide access to vehicles and equipment also provide access for poachers who kill or capture animals for sale in black markets.
About 1000-5000 orangutans are killed each year due to palm oil cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia. In 1990, for example, there were about 315,000 orangutans but now they are fewer than 50,000 orangutans in the wild – this is in areas where natural forests have been converted into palm oil cultivation fields.
8. Water Pollution
Palm oil cultivation has been proven to cause major pollution to the water bodies in the adjacent areas. The pollution can occur during the clearing of the land for the establishment of the farm, when agrochemicals are released through leaching and run-off, or due to the discharge from the palm oil mills.
Studies have also shown that streams that drain through the palm oil plantations tend to have physical, biochemical, and hydrological alterations that are different compared to the rivers that drain from the forest. The discharges from palm oil mills also tend to have high chemical content that ends up contaminating neighboring water systems including groundwater.