Palm oil is hidden inside a range of packaged foods, body care and cleaning products under names like palmitate, sodium lauryl sulphate and stearic acid—even in presumably healthy foods like Earth Balance vegan margarine. And much of that palm oil is sourced from Indonesia, bringing with it the wholesale destruction of native communities and rainforests. Since the 1950s, Indonesia’s rainforests have decreased 42% due to palm oil farming. The country’s lowland rainforests, rich in biodiversity, are home to a number of endangered species, including the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger.
And rates of deforestation are increasing as the country drives up palm oil production. Forest is now disappearing at a rate of 1.5 million hectares per year—larger than the area of Connecticut—mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. While there were 103.3 million hectares of forest in Indonesia in 2000, there were only 88.2 million in 2009. With the country’s sights set on an additional 8.3 million metric tons of palm oil and palm kernel oil production by 2015 that means a 71% increase in hectares of land cleared for oil palm trees by that deadline.
Such rapid deforestation leads to significant greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the case of peatlands. While clearing a hectare of tropical forest may release between 500 and 900 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), draining just one hectare of peatland for palm oil releases an estimated 3,750 to 5,400 tons of CO2 over a 25-year period. And much of the land cleared in Indonesia is peatland.
Several companies have vowed to use only organic palm oil produced with minimal deforestation as members of the newly created Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Members include Wilmar International, Cargill, Nestle and Unilever. But RSPO has been criticized for its lack of accountability; it only traces palm oil as far as its producer. The World Wildlife Fund recommends that consumers do their own background checks before purchasing products with palm oil.