Palm oil is a vegetable and is technically vegan in its raw form. It is derived from palm fruit, which grows on African oil palm trees. In principle, palm oil is vegan, but many vegans choose to avoid the oil, because they argue that extraction of palm oil exploits animals and causes them pain and suffering, something vegans avoid.
Palm oil is damaging the environment. Huge areas of the rainforest are destroyed to make way for plantations that produce palm oil, and several species of animals are threatened with extinction as a direct result of its production.
Palm oil is a common ingredient in lots of products most vegans and non-vegans eat everyday.
What foods contain palm oil?
You’ll find palm oil in bread, biscuits, sweets, crips, margarine, vegan cheese, ice-cream, instant foods and chocolate.
It is a versatile vegetable oil and can be used to create multiple textures, so it can be difficult to avoid. If you eat processed foods, whether you are vegan or non-vegan, it’s likely that you eat palm oil, and your consumption is contributing to the destruction of the environment and the extinction of species. For this reason, some vegans refuse to eat palm oil, and insist that anyone who does eat it is not a vegan.
Why don't vegans eat palm oil?
Palm oil is difficult to produce sustainably, and its extraction is linked to deforestation in Africa, Asia, America, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The production of palm oil requires large areas of land to be cleared to allow for the growth of African oil palm trees, and this destroys parts of the rainforest and renders the natural habitat of several species of animals inhabitable.
The definition of veganism as stated by the Vegan Society is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Because the production of palm oil is linked to exploitation and cruelty towards animals in order to produce a food source, many vegans argue that it cannot be vegan to consume it.
Which animals are hurt by palm oil?
The areas used to grow African oil palm trees are rich with animal species, many of which are endangered. Large areas of land must be cleared in order to make land suitable for growing, and lots of animal and insect species living in the areas desired by palm oil producers are forced to abandon their habitats. Many are killed.
Several species of animal are facing extinction due to the overproduction of palm oil and resulting destruction of their habitat. The most famous of these is the orangutan. This species of ape is dwindling in numbers, and most experts agree that the production of palm oil has most certainly played a part in this.
Orangutans and palm oil
Orangutans have suffered immensely in aid of palm oil production. They’ve been found burned alive and hacked to pieces, the victims of individuals tasked with clearing large areas of forest for palm oil production.
According to the Orangutan Foundation, palm oil production is posing a serious extinction threat for orangutan populations, specifically in Borneo and Sumatra.
Orangutan populations are also threatened by illegal logging, timber estates, mining, settlements, and road construction, as well as large scale fires caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
In the early 1990s there were 315,000 orangutans in the wild. This number as decreased drastically to fewer than 50,000, and a large part of that reduction is attributed to the production of palm oil.
Alternatives to palm oil
There are alternatives to palm oil, including:
These oils still present sustainability and affordability challenges, but the effects of their production are not as damaging to habitats as the palm oil industry.
Palm oil is cheaper to produce, and therefore the number one food oil source in the world, but the cost of its use is born by the environment it destroys and the animals who live there.
Palm oil and the environment
Large areas of tropical rainforest are culled in order to grow African oil palm trees so that humans can extract palm oil from their fruits. This destroys habitats for many endangered species, and is the number one concern for many conservationists trying to protect organutangs, tigers, bears and elephants.
Palm oil production has also forced the eviction of many forest-dwelling peoples. The land is valuable to plantation owners and palm-oil growers, and they’ll often resort to forcing animals and humans from their habitat in order to grow on it.
Rainforests are a very important part of the global environment. They stabilise our climate maintain the water cycle, provide medicine and foods, protect against floods, prevent droughts and support tribal people.
More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced by the rainforest, and oxygen is extremely important for survival.
Palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia
Around 85 percent of the palm oil produced comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. The production of palm oil is having a devastating impact on the ecosystems in those countries.
Between 2005 and 2010, almost 353,000 hectares of carbon rich swampland was destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations in Malaysia. The clearing and draining of peat swamp forests contributes to climate change. Scientists estimate these acts alone are responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.
Indonesia are the world’s largest producer and exporter of palm oil, exporting 40-42 million tonnes last year.
What other oils are there?
There are other oils that humans could use as a substitute to palm oil, including soybean, rapeseed, coconut, sunflower, jatropha and jojoba, but it should be noted that many of these alternatives require up to nine times the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil that African oil palm trees produce, and come with their own conservation challenges.
Should vegans give up palm oil?
Yes, if possible. Palm oil undisputedly contributes to the suffering of animals through its production. It takes many millions of hectares of land to produce the amount of palm oil we use today, and the production of palm oil is linked to the destruction of the environment and to the potential extinction of several animal species.
What about sustainable palm oil?
There are methods of producing palm oil without causing extortionate damage to the environment or harming animals. When producers farm palm oil responsibly, this is called ‘sustainable palm’.
Often products that use sustainable palm oil mark it as such on their packaging. To be certified as sustainable, companies need to be part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO.
What makes sustainable palm oil sustainable?
In order for palm oil to be certified as sustainable, it needs to be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO.
They have a criteria of standards palm oil producers must meet in order to be certified as sustainable. These include:
- Commitment to transparency
- Compliance with applicable laws and regulations
- Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability
- Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers
- Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
- Responsible consideration of employees, and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills
- Responsible development of new plantings
- Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity
Is sustainable palm oil vegan?
Yes, sustainable palm oil is vegan. Palm oil is a vegetable and is technically vegan in its raw form, but many vegans argue that it is not vegan to consume it because it destroys the habitats of animals.
If palm oil producers are certified as sustainable, it means they have been audited for their commitment to environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, which means it is highly unlikely that they’re damaging the environment or harming animals with their production methods.