Orangutans: how palm oil is causing destruction

What do orangutans and palm oil have in common? They are happiest in a humid tropical climate such as Indonesia or Malaysia. 

You might not realize it yet, but palm oil has invaded your pantry, your toiletries and your supermarket shelves! Check out your labels and you will see how it’s 50% of the household and food items you shop.

Dinner rolls, cookies, shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, prepared meals, makeup…. All these can contain palm oil and in consequence have something to do with the progressive extinction of orangutans.

Let’s take a deep dive and understand what palm oil is and how, as consumers, we can make sustainable choices.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil made from the fleshy fruit of the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. It’s become the most widely used edible oil globally. It is considered safe, however there’s a lot of debate on how healthy it’s consumption is for humans.

With about 50% of industrial household items and packaged foods containing palm oil, it is in every home in Europe.

In terms of production, palm oil is considered as efficient because it needs less land to produce. However, it’s production has had a massive ecological impact on deforestation and pollution, indigenous people displacement and wildlife diminution.

When hectares of Rainforest are burned for palm oil production in Indonesia, it’s a loss in wildlife habitat and diversity but it’s also an incredible amount of CO2 and greenhouse gasses being released into our atmosphere. This makes the negative impact of palm oil production reach a global scale.

Palm oil loves a warm humid climate and is mostly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. These two countries account for 85% of the global production, which translates into thousands of hectares of forest destroyed.

In 2021, the global production of palm oil was about 73 million metric tons, which went into our cosmetics and food, but also into our car engine as biofuel.

The impact of palm oil on orangutan survival

According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), there are only 119’346 orangutans left, classifying them as a critically endangered species.

Most of the surviving orangutans are located in Sumatra and Borneo, living from fresh fruits and living in the trees of the Rainforest.

However, their forests are quickly disappearing to make space for palm oil plantations and other types of agriculture. Because of both legal and illegal logging, orangutans are dying because they lose their shelter, sustenance and sometimes are simply killed by humans.

Slow and large animals, orangutans are easy targets for poachers and hunters. With their natural habitat being destroyed, they are often killed by humans when they move to agricultural areas hoping to find food.

When female orangutans are killed, their baby is often sold as a pet if it survives, while there’s also a trade for orangutan skulls.

Why is it crucial to preserve orangutans? 

Orangutans, or in Indonesian or Malay “the people of the forest,” play an important role in seed dispersal in their natural habitat. Just like gardeners of the forest, they are part of a delicate and intricate ecosystem: the Rainforest.

The Rainforest is one of the lungs of our planet, contributing to regulating pollution and maintaining a clean atmosphere for all life on earth.

Therefore, the issue is a lot bigger than in protecting these beautiful great apes. By the way, orangutans are also highly intelligent creatures and share 96.4% of our genes.

Is palm oil actually bad for humans too?

Palm oil is unhealthy…

There’s a lot of debate on whether palm oil is actually detrimental to our health. There’s a need for more independent research on the topic to really understand the potential impact of palm oil on cardiovascular disease or if its health benefits are more important.

What we know for certain is that palm oil is high in saturated fats and that most of it is consumed in an oxidized form. Oxidation is the refining process that makes it easier and tastier to use it for food products, and therefore heavily refined. When the palm oil is oxidized, it loses most of its nutritional benefits such as nutrients and vitamins, leaving mostly saturated fat.

To make matters worse, industrial palm oil is used in most industrial baked goods, for frying and snacks… All foods that are already not that great for our cholesterol and blood pressure.

…Or do its benefits outweigh its issues?

On the flip side, some people consider palm oil to be pretty good. Firstly, as a semi-solid fat, it’s melting point is relatively high. As an example, palm oil melts at 35°C, compared to coconut oil which melts at 24°C. Because of its higher smoke point, it remains more stable under high heat which gives it more uses and is considered healthier than fats with lower smoke points.

A number of studies have linked palm oil to brain and heart health because of its vitamin E, vitamin A and antioxidant properties and its positive impact in lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol.

However, other studies contradict these findings.

Bottom line, the palm oil fruit might have a lot of positive health properties, but consuming highly processed palm oil via processed foods is probably not the healthiest option.

How can we make a difference as consumers?

With the constant increase in demand for palm oil from the food and chemical industries, as well as the energy sector, the pressure on orangutans is intensifying.

We might feel like their cause is out of our power, but as consumers we make a difference collectively with how we spend our money.

Here’s a few things we can do:

  1. Speak about it – information is power and the more people are made aware of the palm oil issue, the more we can make an impact together. 
  2. Skip the processed food – If it’s in a box or a plastic bag, chances are it’s a highly processed food filled with additives, artificial colours, sugars and preservatives. You already know this stuff isn’t good for you or your kids’ health.
  3. Check the labels – still want to get your favorite crisps? Check the ingredients list. If it says palm oil on it, do you still really like them?
  4. Tell your supermarket – ask your shop for products that are palm oil free. Some brands have already understood and clearly label their items as free from palm oil. If there’s demand for it, retailers will stock them.
  5. Adopt an orangutan – A little while ago, I “adopted” a little orangutan via the Orangutan Foundation. In a way, it became my incarnation of Marcel. It’s also been a way to share with my son Luca a way to get involved with animal welfare, even if we are in Europe and our little orangutan is safely looked after in Indonesia.

A short note on sustainable palm oil

Although sustainable certified palm oil plantations sound great, there’s a lot of controversy on the topic.

On the one hand, it’s a promise for more oversight and less uncontrolled damage on deforestation and the Rainforest life.

On the other hand, there’s reports of fraud and abuse, even with the certification.

I leave it up to you to be the judge on whether you want to eliminate palm oil from your shopping altogether or if you accept sustainable palm oil as an alternative. In the meantime, check out my natural self-care tips for mums.

Until next time, Tania xx