Palm Oil Cooks Up Extinction for Orangutans

The industrial demand for inexpensive, versatile palm oil has significantly increased within the past five years. The oil—which originates from the fruit of the tropical oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis)—is used mainly in food items: as a cooking oil or in processed foods such as cookies, crackers, candy, and pet food. It is also found in many personal care products such as shampoo, soap, and cosmetics, as well as in other consumer products, including biodiesel.

Unsustainable mass production of the oil, however, is having a drastic effect on the biodiversity of Asian countries—particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, which currently account for almost 90 percent of palm oil production and global exports. Entire native forests have been and continue to be clear-cut to make way for an increasing number of palm tree plantations. These native forests are home—the only home—for the arboreal Sumatran orangutan. During the process in which land is cleared for palm oil plantations, orangutans are either displaced to lower quality habitats, burned alive, hunted and killed, or—if they are young—captured and sold into the pet trade. This habitat destruction is occurring at an astounding rate; researchers have predicted that within a decade, if no alternate palm oil production methods are developed and implemented, the orangutans will be extinct in the wild.

Sumatran orangutans are not the only species affected. Both the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros and the Asian elephant are also being pushed to the brink of extinction due to severe habitat destruction associated with palm oil production. Meanwhile, small farmers are losing their land to new palm oil plantations, and the very culture of the indigenous people of the region is threatened by the destruction of rainforests and loss of native species.

As demand for palm oil has risen, alternatives have been suggested—including soya and sunflower seed oil in some products. Unfortunately, these sources run a similar risk of being produced unsustainably. An organization known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed stringent criteria for palm oil plantations to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil. Although the certification process has developed a reputation for complexity, many major manufacturers, including Nestlé and General Mills, have agreed to comply with RSPO standards and have been certified. While there is always room to improve on the criteria and practices of the RSPO, as long as palm oil remains a key ingredient in a variety of products, institutions like the RSPO are needed to promote less destructive methods of production and provide hope for rainforest inhabitants, including the Sumatran orangutan.

In late 2010, the RSPO unveiled a packaging logo that will allow consumers to distinguish products containing certified sustainable palm ingredients sourced according to RSPO rules. Beginning in early 2011, product manufacturers and retail companies will be able to apply the new logo to thousands of products, allowing consumers concerned about habitat loss to make more informed choices.