It’s a product that’s implicated in massive deforestation, the use of slave labour, corruption and the deaths of 100,000 orangutans since 1999. It’s also on the shelves of almost every supermarket in Britain. 

Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from the fruit of African oil palm trees, though the vast majority of it comes from two countries in South-East Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s used in cakes, pizzas, biscuits, margarine and a host of other foods, as well as other household goods like soaps, detergents and cosmetics. The World Wildlife Fund estimates it’s in fully 50% of all packaged good in supermarkets. 

Judith Murdoch, an expert on food manufacturing at the Efeca consultancy says palm oil is so ubiquitous because processed foods and cosmetics need fats. Palm oil is a popular fat because, she says, “It’s such a versatile oil, cheaper and healthier than other vegetable oils because they have to be hydrogenated, producing unhealthy trans fats.”

The increase in demand for palm oil has led to a staggering rise in production. Two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia dominate production, easily outstripping the rest of the world put together.

Run cursor over graph for more details

The growth in their industries has been huge, with production in Indonesia more than quadrupling since 2000, while production has almost doubled over the same period in Malaysia.

Run cursor over graph for more details


That has come as at a heavy cost. Tom Johnson is the founder of The Gecko Project, an investigative journalism project looking into the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia: “Since the early 2000's palm oil has been the single biggest driver of deforestation in Indonesia. It’s certainly not the only one but it's the single most important one. Obviously that has huge climate implications because, when deforestation was at its peak there, in the mid 2000s, Indonesia had the third highest emissions in the world after only China and the US.” 

In Malaysia the picture is similar, with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimating that 47% of the deforestation there between 1972 and 2015 was caused by palm oil planting.

The impact of palm oil plantations on those who live in the affected areas is a mixed one. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments tout the benefits of palm oil production, ministers from the latter quoting research that showed: “At least 1.3 million people were lifted from poverty…as a direct result of the expansion of the palm oil industry.” But those figures are disputed in Indonesia and a recent study by researchers at Kent University, looking at 14 years of data from 6,600 villages in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, found only villages with a market-based economy benefitted. Villagers living in more remote areas, who often rely on subsistence agriculture, actually became poorer when palm oil plantations replaced forests.

Perhaps most shockingly, the report found levels of malnutrition (in already poor areas) often rose for subsistence-based communities affected by new palm oil development. The authors saying it was likely to be a direct result of people living there losing access to fruit, vegetables and medicinal plants previously available to them in the forests.

Many activists say it’s a similar picture in Malaysia. Clare Rewcastle Brown has been writing about the governance of the Malaysian state of Sarawak since 2010, when she founded the news portal Sarawak Report. The state is home to dozens of groups of indigenous people, many dependent on the rainforest for food and housing. It’s also home to a palm oil industry that’s notorious for riding roughshod over the concerns of locals. Brown says the industry has left indigenous groups like the Penan destroyed and close to starvation: “It's a devastating thing to have your jungle cut down by logging but to have it then completely obliterated and turned into a monoculture spanning the entire area the entire region is doubly dreadful because there's nothing left to live on.”

Hear more from Clare Rewcastle Brown on the impact of palm oil on indigenous groups and migrant labour in the video below. Volume may need adjusting


One possible solution to the environmental and social devastation caused by unchecked palm oil planting is sustainable palm oil. Established in 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a worldwide initiative with thousands of members including plantation companies, processors and traders, banks, supermarket chains and environmental NGOs. It has developed environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with, in order to produce certified sustainable palm oil. The RSPO says its’ members represent all links along the palm oil supply chain and are committed “to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.” 

Inke van der Sluijs, Technical Manager Europe at the RSPO is certain that the organisation plays a valuable role: “What our members do is reduce deforestation. No doubt about it. We have figures to say how much high conservation value area they have conserved. No doubt that that is the case.”

Britain’s supermarkets seem to agree – all the main chains are members of RSPO, though Iceland has said it will ban palm oil outright from its own brand products. Major companies such as Nestlé, Unilever, Mars have committed to only using sustainable palm oil produced by RSPO members by 2020. The RSPO says 3.85 million hectares of palm oil are now cultivated in a sustainable manner, and its members now produce almost a fifth of the world’s palm oil.

Consumers, supermarkets and palm oil - how much do shoppers know, or care about palm oil in their shopping baskets? Hear more in the audio story below. Volume may need adjusting.


But there’s growing evidence that the widespread cultivation of sustainable palm oil may not be the whole answer to the environmental and social problems associated with the crop. Courtney L. Morgans of Australia’s Queensland University is the lead author of a recent academic paper looking into the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering sustainability objectives. She and her colleagues examined 200 palm concessions, including 91 certified by the RSPO. Her findings are damning, showing no environmental or social advantages: “We didn't find any significant evidence that RSPO certified concessions were doing any better than non-certified concessions. This was true in terms of maintaining the orang-utan populations, reducing the incidence of fire. It didn't seem to improve the wealth of communities surrounding plantations or improve access to vital social facilities such as health care.

Her research findings are echoed by those of Dr. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti of Purdue University in the United States. In a paper published this year. he and colleagues from Purdue and Russia’s Tomsk State University looked at governmental records and information from NGOs, as well as satellite data from 2001-2016, covering Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. The academics found the three countries had lost about 31 million hectares of forest cover. In areas where there was no sustainability requirement 34 percent of the land had been deforested. But in areas with a sustainability requirement (those certified by the RSPO, or the Palm Oil Innovation Group, a similar organization founded in 2013) there was actually a higher rate of deforestation – 38 percent. 

Dr. Gatti is scathing about the effectiveness of schemes like the RSPO: “Our research shows, quite unequivocally, that there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that does not come from deforestation, and that claims by certification schemes, corporations and non-governmental organisations are simply ‘greenwashing’, useful to continue business as usual.” 

Extent of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Sarawak, including RSPO certified plantations.

Click on map for interactive layers and to zoom in on detail of palm oil concessions In Indonesia and Sarawak, Malaysia.

Click on map for interactive layers and to zoom in on detail of palm oil concessions In Indonesia and Sarawak, Malaysia.

Tightening standards - a new RSPO?

The RSPO says it is tightening up its standards. In November last year it announced a major overhaul, for example banning the clearing of all types of forest. In the past only the thickest jungle was protected. Such rules are overseen by independent auditors, not by the RSPO. Inke van der Sluijs of the RSPO says such independence is “a strength but you have to ensure the auditors are the right quality and that’s something we’re working on.”

Many NGOs working on deforestation issues say such audits are, on the contrary, a serious problem. The Environmental Investigation Agency, which investigates and campaigns against environmental crime, says on its website: “Certification audits have been woefully deficient to date. They have consistently failed to pick up non-compliance with the RSPO standard. And this is the whole point of them. Without audits assuring that the standard is adhered to, it does not matter what the RSPO’s standard is.”

Siobhan Pearce, Forests Campaigner at the EIA says too much auditing is done by organisations which are too close to the palm oil companies: “The auditors are of course paid by the companies to do the auditing. So I think the RSPO, first of all would need to look at whether that's a problem and a conflict of interest there between auditors being paid by the companies and how much they're put in a difficult position, the auditors, because they can't do maybe as much independent monitoring as they would like.

Courtney L. Morgans agrees more independence is needed but is optimistic that November’s new rules may make a difference: “There needs to be more emphasis placed on providing plantation owners and managers with the capacity to improve their capacity and help them manage and implement changes. There was a big revision to the RSPO principles and criteria last year in November and they are a significant step forward in the right direction. There's a lot more emphasis on transparency and a lot more clarity in the environmental guidelines.”

Clarity Worries - Indonesia's Push For Secrecy

But a recent announcement by the Indonesian government may be a severe setback to advocates for such clarity. On May 6 this year it sent a letter to the country’s palm oil companies advising them to not share their plantation data with other parties, including NGOs and external consultants. That would include organisations like RSPO.

Greenpeace Indonesia says the letter is causing confusion for companies hoping to gain RSPO certification, as one of the requirements for such certification is publishing plantation maps on the RSPO website, data that the government now says it doesn’t want disclosed.  

Inke van der Sluijs says the new Indonesian announcement is a major cause for concern: “It's a huge problem because we need transparency in this journey. What our members need to do is share their concession maps not just of their certified plantations, they need to share everything to become a member of RSPO, (they) need to declare where they have plantations, concessions. If the amendment says we cannot make maps we have to say I'm sorry you cannot be a member then. So that's a huge problem.”

That’s a significant issue because for all its faults, the RSPO is the most successful existing organisation trying to curb deforestation in the palm oil industry. Even Alison Kirkman, a forests expert at Greenpeace, says the RSPO is making some progress, though it’s too slow for the NGO’s liking: ”The new guidelines were of course positive and definitely a step forward, though you’d have expected those to be in place already, (but) the RSPO is the best that we’ve got in terms of holding the industry to account.”  


But even if the RSPO does hold its members to account in the future, the palm oil sector remains overwhelmingly non-sustainable. RSPO approved palm oil production is expected to reach 14.07 million tonnes in 2019. That’s just 19% of global palm oil production. The rest is produced on plantations that have much weaker oversight. Malaysia, meanwhile, is introducing its own standard, the MSPO.  But there’s little clarity yet over what standards it will enforce and widespread fears it will be a “watered-down” version of the RSPO standards.

The danger is that deforestation for palm oil will continue, despite the efforts of the RSPO and the promises of governments. That’s set to mean more misery for the communities kicked off their land, more wildlife destroyed and more corruption in states like Sarawak.

But the problem is not one that just affects those living in South-East Asia. It’s global. The International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent non-profit research organization estimates palm-driven land use change in Indonesia and Malaysia emits roughly 500 million tonnes of CO2e each year – a figure only slightly lower that of the entire global aviation industry. The impact of that will be felt not just in Indonesia and Malaysia but across the world. 

Images below show deforestation in mainland Indonesia and Malaysia in 2001, 2010 and 2017. Palm oil planting is estimated to be responsible for around half of all rainforest loss in these countries.

Roll cursor over images for progression over time

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2001 - NB not all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2010 - roughly half of all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting. Data from Global Forest Watch.

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2017 - roughly half of all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting. Data from Global Forest Watch.

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2001 - NB not all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2010 - roughly half of all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting. Data from Global Forest Watch.

[object Object]

Deforestation in mainland Indonesia, Malaysia 2017 - roughly half of all deforestation is caused by palm oil planting. Data from Global Forest Watch.

Images courtesy: Adobe Stock Images. Others by kind permission of Greenpeace UK, EIA, BMF, Sarawak Reports.