Palm Oil Facts

Palm oil is a plant-based oil that is partially hydrogenated and used as a healthier alternative to trans-fatty acids in many common snack foods.  Commonly found in products sold in natural food stores, it is also used in beauty products and pet food, and it is even being considered as a possible fuel alternative. This product that appears to be a naturally “green” and healthy choice is actually deadly to orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and other species native to Asia and other areas where it is produced. Palm oil plantations are spreading into the natural habitats of orangutans, destroying their food sources and potentially their very existence.

Palm Oil Facts:

  • Palm oil is a form of edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis).
  • African oil palms originated in West Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. The majority of all palm oil is grown and produced in Borneo and Sumatra. It is an introduced agricultural crop (not gathered from the rain forests).
  • Palm oil is the second-most widely produced edible oil, behind soybean oil.
  • In addition to being used in the food industry, palm oil is also used in many cosmetics and bath products.
  • Demand for this commodity is rapidly increasing because of recent trans-fat health concerns and bio-fuel development.
  • The majority of the world’s palm oil supply is grown in Borneo and Sumatra.
  • The deforestation rate is about 4.9 million acres of rainforest each year. That acreage equals an area slightly larger than the size of the state of New Jersey—each year.
  • There are millions of hectares of degraded land available that could be used for palm oil plantations. Instead, many companies choose to use high conservation value rainforest land in order to gain the additional timber profits.
  • After logging rainforest habitat, palm oil companies often use uncontrolled burning to clear the land. In 1997-98, a devastating fire killed almost 8,000 orangutans in Borneo.
  • Borneo is home to 13 primate species, 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians, and 15,000 plant species.
  • Sumatra is home to Sumatran rhinos, clouded leopards, Sumatran tigers, Asian tapirs, Sumatran elephants, and thousands of other species.
  • The wild population of Bornean orangutans is estimated at 45,000-50,000.
  •  There are about 7,300 Sumatran orangutans in the wild; they are on the list of top 25 most endangered primates in the world.
  • Orangutans give birth once every 6 -10 years, the longest inter-birth interval of any mammal.
  • Orangutans are the only Asian great ape; they are the largest arboreal mammal on Earth.
  • Orangutans will be extinct in the wild in the next 10 years if the palm oil industry, deforestation and burning of peat forests does not change.
  • Rainforests remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • When palm oil is produced through deforestation, the burning peat soil and loss of rainforest causes an increase in greenhouse gasses.
  • Other types of vegetable oil may offer more sustainable solutions for Biofuel.

In response to the urgent and pressing global call for sustainably produced palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 with the objective promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.

What can you do?
Other websites with palm oil information:

Photos taken by: Raylene Silver

Check labels when you shop. If a product you buy contains palm oil, e-mail the company and encouraged the use of sustainable palm oil.
Make an effort to purchase products from companies that are members of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil. (For a list of companies visit this website:
Promote better labeling.  Encourage RSPO companies to label products with an “Orangutan Friendly” label, just like the “Dolphin Safe” tuna labeling.  Please have the label include the percentage of certified sustainable palm oil the product contains.  (For example: 50% certified sustainable palm oil was used in this product.)
Write to US Government Officials.  Ask them not to explore palm oil as a biofuel option.  Cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil is not a “green” substitute for gasoline.

Download the Palm Oil Shopping Guide