It’s almost ever­y­where – in cosme­tics, clea­ning agents, pet food, and most notably, in biofuels. The majo­rity of palm oil origi­nates from Indo­nesia and Malaysia, and it’s devas­ta­ting the habitat of orangutans.

The contro­ver­sial topic of palm oil

Curr­ently, palm oil is the world’s most widely produced vege­table oil, accoun­ting for about one-third of total global oil consump­tion (appro­xi­m­ately 70 million metric tons annu­ally). This is due to its cost-effec­ti­ve­ness and popu­la­rity stem­ming from its chemical proper­ties: palm oil is flavor-neutral, boasts a long shelf life, excep­tional heat stabi­lity, main­tains a solid consis­tency at room tempe­ra­ture, and does not require chemical hydrogenation.

It is esti­mated that curr­ently, almost every second super­market product contains palm oil. These encom­pass groce­ries, espe­ci­ally processed items, as well as cosme­tics such as lipsticks or sunscreens, deter­gents, paints and varnishes, and candles. A signi­fi­cant consumer is the auto­mo­tive industry, with about half of the palm oil consumed in Germany allo­cated for biodiesel produc­tion. Globally, only around five percent of the palm oil harvest has been used in the energy sector so far. In many Asian count­ries, palm oil serves as an ever­yday food staple and is used for frying and deep-frying.

Which count­ries have large scale palmoil cultivation?

The oil palm (Elaeis Guineensis) origi­nally hails from West Africa, thri­ving exclu­si­vely in tropical climates, parti­cu­larly in regions densely covered by lush forests. It was initi­ally intro­duced to Indo­nesia in 1848. Since then, the expanse of oil palm culti­va­tion has grown expo­nen­ti­ally: in Indo­nesia, oil palm plan­ta­tions now span an area ten times larger (at least 14 million hectares) than they did in 1990. Globally, palm oil culti­va­tion has multi­plied sixty-fold compared to 1961, encom­pas­sing at least 20 million hectares world­wide, which is greater than half the size of Germany.

In Indo­nesia, oil palms are predo­mi­nantly culti­vated on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, with incre­asing expan­sion observed on Sula­wesi and Papua. Malaysia is another major palm oil produ­cing country, and coll­ec­tively, these two nations presently account for appro­xi­m­ately 85 percent of the world’s palm oil produc­tion. Expan­sion of palm oil plan­ta­tions is also being observed in other regions, inclu­ding Latin America and Africa.

In which count­ries are oil palms culti­vated on a large scale?

The situa­tion of oran­gutans in Borneo is critical. Appro­xi­m­ately 50 percent of all oran­gutan popu­la­tions have been wiped out. In just the past decade, the number of these animals has decreased by 25 percent. Today, the Borneo oran­gutan is among the criti­cally endan­gered species on our planet. There are only about 57,000 indi­vi­duals left on Borneo, and the remai­ning oran­gutan groups are often isolated from each other, making it chal­len­ging for the neces­sary genetic exch­ange for long-term survival.

Over 50 percent of all oran­gutans in Borneo live outside protected areas. This means that their habi­tats are poten­ti­ally threa­tened and at risk of perma­nent destruc­tion. Nume­rous factors jeopar­dize the survival of these peaceful great apes, contri­bu­ting to their current endan­gered status.

The Orangutan’s Habitat Is Under Threat of Extinction

Along­side poaching and wild­life traf­fi­cking, habitat loss stands as one of the primary reasons oran­gutans face endan­ger­ment. The conti­nuous growth in popu­la­tion in Indo­nesia and globally has led to an increased demand for raw mate­rials, food, and consumer goods. To meet this demand, more and more land is being culti­vated. In Indo­nesia, agri­cul­tural expan­sion often results in large-scale defo­re­sta­tion, conse­quently leading to the loss of oran­gutan habitats.

Scien­tists esti­mate that between 2005 and 2015, oil palm culti­va­tion on Borneo (Indo­nesia and Malaysia) was respon­sible for 50 percent of defo­re­sta­tion. Further­more, appro­xi­m­ately 20 percent of oran­gutans curr­ently reside in areas earmarked for palm oil culti­va­tion. These are regions where rain­fo­rests still exist but where licenses for conver­sion into palm oil plan­ta­tions have either been granted to compa­nies or are under conside­ra­tion. It is esti­mated that by 2025, up to an addi­tional 37 percent of the oran­gutans’ present habitat could be lost.

Rapid defo­re­sta­tion

In addi­tion to the direct threat to Borneo’s rain­fo­rests resul­ting from the culti­va­tion of oil palms, there are other ‘defo­re­sta­tion drivers.’ These include (illegal) logging, for example. Mining (e.g., for gold or coal) is also destroying large areas of forest, and even small-scale agri­cul­ture is partly respon­sible for the dwind­ling rain­fo­rests. The problem is that without real alter­na­tives, the growing popu­la­tion is often econo­mic­ally depen­dent on agri­cul­ture. Along­side rice and rubber, the oil palm is one of many crops that farmers cultivate.

Another issue is slash-and-burn agri­cul­ture, which converts rain­fo­rests into agri­cul­tural land for oil palm plan­ta­tions or general farming. Espe­ci­ally during the dry season, fires often get out of control and subse­quently destroy vast areas of forest.

Are palm oil plan­ta­tions threa­tening biodi­ver­sity and, more speci­fi­cally, the rainforests?

As demons­trated above, valuable rain­fo­rests in Borneo, as in the case of the oran­gutan, have often been and continue to be destroyed for the culti­va­tion of oil palms. These rain­fo­rests serve as the habitat for thou­sands of animal and plant species, some of which are endan­gered. Without the rain­fo­rest, their survival is at risk. Ther­e­fore, the clea­ring of rain­fo­rests for large-scale oil palm culti­va­tion unde­ni­ably poses a threat to biodi­ver­sity. Indonesia’s rain­fo­rests, which account for just one percent of the Earth’s surface, are home to ten percent of all species world­wide! This is why the clea­ring of rain­fo­rests carries such profound impli­ca­tions: oil palm plan­ta­tions host 65 to 90 percent fewer mammal species compared to intact rain­fo­rests. Moreover, this deve­lo­p­ment signi­fi­cantly impacts the flora: because oil palms are grown as mono­cul­tures, oil palm plan­ta­tions contain up to 99 percent fewer tree species than primary forests. Scien­tists esti­mate that oil palm culti­va­tion threa­tens 193 animal and plant species worldwide.

How is palm oil culti­va­tion connected with climate change?

The clearance of Borneo’s rain­fo­rests for palm oil culti­va­tion is acce­le­ra­ting global climate change as it entails the loss of millennia-old carbon stores in vege­ta­tion and soil, resul­ting in the release of substan­tial amounts of green­house gases. A commer­cial palm oil plan­ta­tion stores less than half as much carbon per hectare as a rain­fo­rest. Moreover, appro­xi­m­ately 20 percent of palm oil plan­ta­tions in Indo­nesia and Malaysia are estab­lished on peat soil, which must be drained before use. Peat swamp rain­fo­rests contain up to 50 times more carbon (about 6,000 metric tons) than a ’normal’ rain­fo­rest with mineral soil. The layers of peat, some several meters thick, become exposed to weather effects when drained and are highly flammable. Degraded peat soil can emit green­house gases for up to 600 years. Addi­tio­nally, waste­water and waste disposal in palm oil mills produce signi­fi­cant amounts of climate-dama­ging gases.

Due to the unsus­tainable use of its natural resources, Indo­nesia now ranks as the world’s third-largest green­house gas emitter. Accor­ding to current esti­mates, biofuel produced from palm oil is up to three times more harmful to the climate than fuel made from crude oil. Local climate impacts asso­ciated with oil palm culti­va­tion in Borneo have already been observed. For instance, tempe­ra­tures in palm oil plan­ta­tions can be up to 6.5 degrees higher than in primary forests, and areas with high defo­re­sta­tion have recorded reduced preci­pi­ta­tion. In other words, it’s a disaster for nature.

What are the impli­ca­tions of oil palm culti­va­tion for the local population?

In contrast to its envi­ron­mental impact, palm oil culti­va­tion does not bring solely nega­tive social impli­ca­tions. It can help alle­viate poverty and contri­bute to the liveli­hoods of entire fami­lies, espe­ci­ally in regions with limited economic alter­na­tives. Curr­ently, there are appro­xi­m­ately 2.5 million small-scale farmers in Indo­nesia who culti­vate oil palms on their own land. An addi­tional 1.5 million people work in the palm oil industry, inclu­ding as plan­ta­tion labo­rers for large palm oil compa­nies. In Indo­nesia, it is esti­mated that around 35 percent of palm oil plan­ta­tions are operated by small-scale farmers, while the remai­ning percen­tage is managed by large-scale indus­trial plan­ta­tions operated by corporations.

Unfort­u­na­tely, human rights viola­tions remain common in indus­trial palm oil culti­va­tion, a problem we have seen in other agri­cul­tural commo­di­ties like cocoa. Evic­tions of indi­ge­nous and local commu­ni­ties from their land, the crimi­na­liza­tion of small-scale farmers, disre­gard for labor rights, and child labor are among the nega­tive impacts on local popu­la­tions. Commu­ni­ties that have resided on their land for gene­ra­tions face expro­pria­tion, parti­cu­larly in Indo­nesia and Malaysia, where no compre­hen­sive land registry exists to docu­ment land owner­ship. Large corpo­ra­tions exploit this situa­tion when acqui­ring or leasing land with little regard for tradi­tional rights. Protests are often met with violence, since the police and the mili­tary is backing the corpo­ra­tions. Workers on large plan­ta­tions receive low wages, are subjected to unat­tainable harvest quotas, and lack social secu­rity coverage. Envi­ron­mental degra­da­tion also has adverse conse­quences for the popu­la­tion, with many commu­ni­ties reporting rivers polluted by pesti­cides and ferti­li­zers, as well as water shortages or floods caused by indus­trial palm oil cultivation.

What about sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil culti­va­tion has expanded very rapidly in recent decades, at the expense of vulnerable rain­fo­rests. Today, vast indus­trial mono­cul­tures domi­nate where rain­fo­rest once existed.

However, palm oil can actually be culti­vated sustain­ably. It’s not the oil palm itself that is unsus­tainable, but rather irre­spon­sible culti­va­tion. This means that even with palm oil, what really matters is how it is being produced. To ensure sustaina­bi­lity, produc­tion must be envi­ron­men­tally and soci­ally compatible.

For this reason, several initia­tives now exist that have deve­loped stan­dards for more sustainable culti­va­tion of oil palms. A minimum stan­dard for the culti­va­tion of palm oil is offered by the “Round­table on Sustainable Palm Oil” (RSPO), which was founded by the WWF and repre­sen­ta­tives of the palm oil industry. The RSPO applies rela­tively strict criteria, inclu­ding no clea­ring of rain­fo­rests for palm oil plan­ta­tions, no new plan­ta­tions on peat soil, and no child labor, among others.

Yet, many problems still exist on the ground. Viola­tions of the RSPO criteria occur frequently on the plan­ta­tions. While a reduc­tion in green­house gases resul­ting from certi­fied culti­va­tion could be demons­trated, along with less clea­ring of primary forests than with conven­tional palm oil culti­va­tion, there is still insuf­fi­cient evidence that RSPO certi­fi­ca­tion can effec­tively protect biodiversity.

In addi­tion to the RSPO, there are also a few examples of organic palm oil culti­va­tion, for example in Ghana or Colombia. Unfort­u­na­tely, this has not yet been the case in Indo­nesia or Malaysia.

Count­ries importing palm oil rarely enforce manda­tory sustaina­bi­lity stan­dards. Even in Germany, palm oil linked to human rights viola­tions or rain­fo­rest defo­re­sta­tion has not yet been made illegal. Curr­ently, only about 20 percent of the palm oil produced world­wide is certi­fied with an inter­na­tio­nally reco­gnized sustaina­bi­lity seal. This is simply insuf­fi­cient for achie­ving large-scale nature conser­va­tion and safe­guar­ding human rights in palm oil culti­va­tion. For this reason, there are also initia­tives in Germany advo­ca­ting for more sustainable palm oil culti­va­tion. The “Forum Nach­hal­tiges Palmöl (FONAP)”  aims to only use palm oil with a sustaina­bi­lity seal. BOS Germany is a member of FONAP, as we want to ensure a voice for the oran­gutans in industry and govern­ment circles and work towards effec­tive species protec­tion as a manda­tory requi­re­ment in palm oil cultivation.

In other words, certi­fi­ca­tion is certainly better than none at all. Nevert­heless, the road to true sustaina­bi­lity remains long. Both in Germany and in Indo­nesia, a legal basis must be estab­lished and enforced so that no further rain­fo­rest destruc­tion and human rights viola­tions are committed in palm oil cultivation.

The fruits of the palmoil palm

Adver­ti­sing palmoil products


Should we avoid palm oil?

Conside­ring the nume­rous nega­tive effects of palm oil culti­va­tion, this is an obvious ques­tion. However, palm oil is not inher­ently bad. The oil palm is, in fact, a highly effi­cient plant. It can meet a signi­fi­cant portion of the world’s demand for vege­table oils while requi­ring rela­tively small areas for culti­va­tion. Addi­tio­nally, oil palms need fewer ferti­li­zers and pesti­cides compared to other crops. The produc­ti­vity of oil palms surpasses that of any other oil crop, such as coconut, sunflower, rape­seed, or soybeans. Oil palms can yield four to seven times more per unit of land than other oil crops. While oil palms yield an average of 3.3 metric tons per hectare, canola, coconut, and sunflower only yield about 0.7 metric tons on average. Soybean plan­ta­tions have an even lower yield, produ­cing just 0.4 tons of oil per hectare. This means that produ­cing the same amount of an alter­na­tive vege­table oil would require a signi­fi­cantly larger area of cultivation.

Emer­ging and deve­lo­ping count­ries, such as Indo­nesia, also have a right to economic deve­lo­p­ment. Many jobs in Indo­nesia now depend on palm oil culti­va­tion and trade. Germany is one of the reci­pient count­ries of Indo­ne­sian palm oil. A complete boycott of palm oil could lead to the loss of crucial income sources for people in oil-produ­cing count­ries, and it would neces­si­tate signi­fi­cantly more agri­cul­tural land world­wide for alter­na­tive oil crops. This would only transfer envi­ron­mental problems to other regions. Comple­tely repla­cing palm oil with other tropical oils, like coconut, is not a viable solu­tion. It would likely result in even more rain­fo­rest clearance to meet the demand.

Oil crops culti­vated in ecolo­gi­cally less sensi­tive regions with higher social stan­dards, such as canola and sunflower in Germany, could serve as substi­tutes for oil palms. However, even in Europe, arable land is limited, and human rights viola­tions in agri­cul­ture cannot be enti­rely ruled out. Conscious consump­tion is, ther­e­fore, more important than simply repla­cing palm oil with other oils. The best approach is to consume less overall and seek sustaina­bi­lity certi­fi­ca­tions when purcha­sing products contai­ning palm oil.

What are the BOS Germany demands on palmoil

Our summa­rized demands to the palmoil industry and the poli­ti­cians in Indo­nesia, Germany and the Euro­pean Union

  • No expan­sion of palm oil plan­ta­tions in forest areas or other unique ecosystems.
  • No culti­va­tion of oil palms on peat soil — instead reha­bi­li­ta­tion of peatlands.
  • Oran­gutan and biodi­ver­sity protec­tion on all plantations.
  • Refo­re­sta­tion of defo­rested, unused areas with agro­fo­restry systems and combi­na­tions of natural tree species with a corridor func­tion for endan­gered species.
  • Manda­tory sustaina­bi­lity certi­fi­ca­tion with reco­gnized seals on all plan­ta­tions and throug­hout the palm oil supply chain, both for produ­cing and proces­sing companies.
  • Conti­nuous impro­ve­ment of and strict compli­ance with sustaina­bi­lity stan­dards, inclu­ding consis­tent prose­cu­tion of violations.
  • Product tracea­bi­lity across the entire supply chain, begin­ning at the plantation.
  • Support for small-scale farmers with certi­fying and imple­men­ting sustainable farming prac­tices and with incre­asing productivity.
  • Addi­tional, sustainable sources of income for the popu­la­tion. Around BOS reha­bi­li­ta­tion areas, for example, BOS works with local people to promote sustainable village deve­lo­p­ment and estab­lish alter­na­tive sources of income to palm oil that are in line with envi­ron­mental conservation.
  • Respect for and protec­tion of land and human rights.
  • No palm oil in biofuels.

Make a dona­tion for the orangutans

Make a one-time donation

Oran­gutans need our help! With your dona­tion for the oran­gutans you accom­pany and support an oran­gutan on its journey until its release into the wild.

Orang-Utan-Retter werden

Make a dona­tion for the orangutans

Make a one-time donation

Oran­gutans need our help! With your dona­tion for the oran­gutans you accom­pany and support an oran­gutan on its journey until its release into the wild.

Orang-Utan-Retter werden

Frequently asked questions

Could palmoil be harmful?

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The clea­ring of Borneo’s rain­fo­rests for agri­cul­ture and the crea­tion of palm oil plan­ta­tions are acce­le­ra­ting climate change and threa­tening biodi­ver­sity. In addi­tion, rivers become polluted by the ferti­li­zers and pesti­cides used on plan­ta­tions. Health hazards from palm oil consump­tion have not yet been fully assessed, although there are some warnings: The Euro­pean Food Safety Autho­rity (EFSA) announced in mid-2016 that palm oil could cause cancer. Caution is advised, espe­ci­ally for babies and small children. However, the warnings do not just relate to palm oil, but to subs­tances that are typi­cally gene­rated by heating vege­table fats to around 200°C and have been shown in animal studies to be carci­no­genic above certain high doses. Accor­dingly, the German Federal Insti­tute for Risk Assess­ment (BfR) clas­si­fies them as critical as well. Prima­rily, glyc­idyl and other fatty acid esters are of concern, but in palm oil these can develop at consider­ably higher concen­tra­tions than in other vege­table fats. Recom­mended is a limit of 30 micro­grams of certain fatty acid esters per day and kilo­gram of body weight. This means that for children, this limit is reached much earlier due to their lower weight.

Does palmoil oppose health risks?

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The harmful subs­tances in palm oil are created during strong heating in the refi­ning process. This does not apply, or only to a much lesser extent, to palm oil that has been processed at lower tempe­ra­tures. Raw, unpro­cessed palm oil even contains subs­tances such as caro­tene and vitamin E that are considered to be bene­fi­cial to health. The latter is even present in a variant that is parti­cu­larly well absorbed by the human body. However, while crude palm oil is an ever­yday food staple in the count­ries where it is culti­vated, it only plays a niche role in Germany. Crude palm oil, with its distinc­tive sweet-flowery, violet-like odor and charac­te­ristic deep orange color, has a semi-solid wax-like consis­tency at Euro­pean room tempe­ra­tures and is usually only available in Asia markets and some organic super­mar­kets. In contrast, the refined palm oil used in various food products has been blea­ched, deodo­rized, and contains almost no vitamins. It is a food-proces­sing subs­tance rather than a food product in its own right.

Why is palm oil used so much? 

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The great advan­tage of palm oil compared to other vege­table oils is its compa­ra­tively high produc­ti­vity. It is possible to produce 3.7 tons of oil from one hectare of land per year. In compa­rison, only 1.3 tons of oil can be obtained from one hectare of canola. Sunflower produc­ti­vity comes to 0.9 tons of oil, coconut palm to 0.8, and soybean to 0.5 tons of oil per year per hectare. This is one of the reasons for the high profi­ta­bi­lity, the compe­ti­tive price, and thus the wide appli­ca­bi­lity of palm oil.

Where does the oil palm grow?

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The oil palm is origi­nally from West Africa, but found a new home in Indo­nesia and Malaysia long ago. By now, it has even made it to South America and is indus­tri­ally culti­vated in Colombia and Brazil, among other places.

How can I find out if a product contains palm oil?

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This infor­ma­tion should be included in the ingre­dient list of a product. Unfort­u­na­tely, the word palm oil is often substi­tuted by the term vege­table fat or other chemical names that do not clearly indi­cate that it is palm oil. There are some Apps that provide this infor­ma­tion after scan­ning the barcode.

Which products contain palm oil?

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Palm oil is used, for example, in instant soups, in all kinds of baked goods, in choco­late bars and filled choco­lates, and in many other processed foods. Palm oil is also a common ingre­dient for cosme­tics, deter­gents and so-called biofuel. Basi­cally, we can hardly get around it in our ever­yday lives. A look at ingre­dient lists provides some insight.

Sonja Wende

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Dona­tions are a matter of trust

Trans­pa­rent use of funds is a matter of course for us. In September 2013, we joined the a non profit initia­tive of Trans­pa­rency Inter­na­tional Germany and signed its decla­ra­tion of commitment.