The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High


The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High


The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High


Worth its weight in blood: The problem with palm oil

If a thousand trees fall in a rainforest and only orangutans are around to hear it, do they make any sound?
Lauren Holcomb
Deforestation is a horrible phenomenon, affecting all corners of the world and having extraordinarily negative effects on both humans and animals. It’s impossible to pinpoint deforestation on one specific cause, but much of it can be accredited to palm oil. In the last few years, palm oil has grown to be a big problem for animals and people alike. “Palm oil is a big issue because so much of the rainforest is being converted to palm oil plantations and a huge loss of species matters.” AP Environmental Science teacher Paul Hage said.

Deforestation. The word evokes powerful visuals of thousands of trees being cleared by shockingly industrial, murderous machinery. It’s a scary thought that a person wants to put out of their head as quickly as the idea springs into their brain. 

Deforestation has been an essential topic in the context of climate change, yet many people don’t even realize just how extreme the problem has become. In the 30 years between 1990 and 2020, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been lost. Additionally, around 15 billion trees are cut down every single year. 

The main reason for this widespread destruction is the result of one devastating cause — agricultural expansion, or the conversion of uncultivated land into crop or grazing land. The problem is not with small farms but with large commercial plantations. There is a key figure to blame for this land conversion. It’s one particular ingredient, found on nearly every grocery store shelf, in snacks, in perfumes, and fast food. 

The culprit? Palm oil. The most widely used vegetable oil in the world, it’s found in 60 percent of all supermarket packaged products today. The oil is cultivated from oil palm trees or Elaeis guineensis, a species of spineless palm tree native to western Africa but also heavily produced in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

So how is this oil responsible for deforestation?

Because of the oil’s source, the requirements for its cultivation, and its widespread demand, oil palm trees are grown on large plantations. To make room for these plantations, tropical forests housing animals including rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and tigers are destroyed. 

“The issue with palm oil is that you only grow the one crop and it makes sense economically, because with your workforce the only thing [that] they’re focusing on is the one crop, and you have machinery that is specific to palm oil. You’re saving money, it’s more efficient, [and] you have a higher yield,” AP Environmental Science teacher Paul Hage said.  “To keep up [with the market], there are places where [mass leveling of nature] is being done since palm oil [is grown] in tropical places, which are usually tied to biodiversity hotspots. Then, you have a monoculture of palm oil plantations and a reduction in the overall number of species. The native biodiversity of that rainforest, like orangutans, cannot survive.”

Palm oil is problematic in other aspects as well, sparking many concerns about human rights violations after palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have been linked to human trafficking and exploitation. U.S. senators have been called to action after reports of Rohingya Muslims being sold as slaves onto palm oil plantations. In addition, there have been multiple serious accusations of large amounts of child labor being used in Indonesia.

No immediately clear solution lets us sustainably attain palm oil. Though the negative effects of palm oil plantations are extremely clear, it’s still the most resource-efficient vegetable oil, meaning that it takes up fewer resources and land than other vegetable oils. But this means that simply replacing it with a different oil like canola or soybean is not a viable option.  

The most obvious first solution that comes to mind is simply boycotting palm oil. However, it is not an easy product to boycott. Since palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, it’s found in practically everything. Palm oil production has increased over time as a result of high demand, going from 56.39 million metric tons in the 2012-2013 marketing year to 77.22 million metric tons in 2022-23. It’s a profitable industry as well, reaching a high of $1,276 per metric ton in 2022

Many articles point to sustainable palm oil as a solution, but it’s not entirely clear what sustainable palm oil is. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an organization that claims its mission is “to advance the production, procurement, finance, and use of sustainable palm oil products.” This sounds great, but it begs the question: what on earth is sustainable palm oil?

“[The RSPO] tend to be hypocrites, and not everything they approve is sustainable. [RSPO-certified companies] sometimes use unpaid labor or underpay their workers,” senior Presley George, a member of the Environmental Club and an AP Environmental Science student, said.  

One of RSPO’s facets of influence is its RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) Certification. This certification is given to retailers and suppliers who meet RSPO’s eight criteria — developed in 2019 — when it comes to palm oil. Like RSPO’s mission statement, these criteria sound good, but ironically enough, the RSPO can’t even follow their own first rule, commitment to transparency. RSPO has faced a plethora of controversies regarding accountability. 

In 2019, the environmental campaigning organization Greenpeace humorously called RSPO “about as useful as a chocolate teapot.” In the same article, the organization said that not only did the RSPO take 14 years to ban members from destroying forests, but it also alleged that the RSPO does not even enforce the rule. Greenpeace also claimed that in 2019, about three-fourths of all fires linked to palm oil companies were on RSPO members’ land. 

But despite these damaging allegations, it still seems that the benefits of the RSPO outweigh the negatives. 

According to a study examining RSPO influence in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the RSPO reduced pollution by an average of 0.05 percent to one percent. While this may seem unimpressive, the researchers explained that rural development benefits take some time to materialize. Additionally, the researchers found that RSPO reduced village land pollution by approximately 21 percent. 

A different study also found that RSPO-certified palm oil lowered greenhouse gas emissions by about 35 percent when compared to non-RSPO-certified palm oil. This same study also discovered that RSPO regulation is associated with lower rates of natural occupation (meaning in this context of the occupation of forests by palm oil plantations) by about 20 percent.

A third study conducted from 2017-19 affirmed the results and found that RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil has a 35 percent lower global warming impact and a 20 percent lower biodiversity impact from land-use changes than non-certified palm oil produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Emily Bowling, a conservation education liaison at the St. Louis Zoo, affirmed the complicated nature of the RSPO. 

“One issue I have is that companies don’t have to use sustainable palm oil, they just have to make a commitment to using sustainable palm oil,” Bowling said.

But she also asserted that it’s difficult to work towards sustainable palm oil with so many complicated facets of palm oil production, such as different working conditions in various countries and the demand for palm oil. Processed palm oil often gets dumped into a vat, so it’s hard for companies to buy sustainably and the RSPO is trying to help different corporations with that.

Furthermore, the reason why the RSPO rarely kicks out companies is not because they don’t value accountability, but instead for the exact opposite reason. 

“[A while ago] Nestlé was suspended by the RSPO and [over 30] zoos and environmental NGOS signed a letter and got Nestlé to rejoin the RSPO. That’s the advantage of the RSPO — it keeps tabs on companies so they are held accountable. That’s why the RSPO rarely kicks out companies for breaking the rules; it’s a last resort since if a company is not part of the RSPO they have no oversight. 

While there are objective problems with the RSPO, it’s the best option available right now. It’s hard to attack the organization completely when it is currently the only major institution completely focused on the sustainability of palm oil.

“Would I love for the RSPO to work a little bit faster? Yes. Is there a better alternative? No,” Bowling said. “The RSPO is not green-washing, palm oil is just complicated.”

However, regardless of what the RSPO is doing for deforestation and promoting sustainability, more needs to be done in terms of regulation and accountability. The danger palm oil poses to endangered species is no laughing matter. Besides the horrific effects of deforestation on endangered animals alone, three elephants were found poisoned near a plantation after electric fences to keep them out failed in Malaysia, a country with only around 1,500 elephants left in the wild. All three species of orangutan around the globe — Tapanuli, Bornean, and Sumatran — are negatively affected by palm oil plantations. Additionally, it’s estimated that around 1,000-5,000 orangutans — a critically endangered species — die every year due to deforestation

Between 2000-2012, approximately 17 percent of prime Sumatran Tigers’ habitats were torn down, primarily for palm oil plantations. This is particularly depressing because habitat loss is one of the leading causes of extinction for the species

“The loss of one species often impacts the loss of other species. It’s called the cascade. [Also], those species that are lost, have instrumental values which are also lost. If a species like an orangutan is lost, you’re losing that beauty, you’re losing the experience of seeing it. Some species can be used for actual goods and you’re losing that ability,” Hage said. 

But if the heartbreaking violence against these animals isn’t enough for you to be concerned about deforestation, the issue goes beyond just impacting animals. People all over the world are facing the consequences of palm oil farming. 

Much of palm oil is being used for food, yet ironically, the indigenous populations who live in the forests being destroyed for palm oil plantations experience disproportionate rates of malnutrition and starvation. They, of course, see none of the great wealth obtained in the palm oil industry as it all goes to big corporations, but they do feel the serious and imminent effects of deforestation. 

One example of indigenous populations being displaced is being seen in Brazil. Brazilian indigenous tribes have for centuries lived on these lands that they are now being forced off of after former President Jair Bolsonaro stripped protections on this land for the benefit of big companies poaching the land to build plantations. 

Another consequence of deforestation is an increased prevalence of zoonotic diseases, diseases passed from animals to humans. This is a result of animals and insects being displaced from their homes and seeking shelter in nearby towns and villages. This phenomenon is being seen in Indonesia, where researchers found that even a one percent loss in forest cover increased the incidence of malaria by 10 percent. Other zoonotic viruses include ebola and SARS-CoV2, which have killed a combined 6.9 million people.

Something that both of these consequences — the exploitation of indigenous people and the spread of zoonotic disease — have in common is that they typically affect already marginalized and/or impoverished communities. The people being punished for deforestation are not those responsible —- the wealthy CEOs of big corporations — but people coming from poorer or indigenous communities.

But despite the havoc palm oil has wreaked against the environment, the actual oil is nothing evil. We cannot blame the destruction of the planet squarely upon a vegetable product’s shoulders. The real evil is human greed. So what’s the solution? Again, the seemingly obvious answer, boycotting brands, isn’t realistic. At all.

Only about ten companies own the vast majority of groceries we buy. These companies are Nestlé, Pepsico, Unilever, Danone, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Associated British Foods, and Mondelez. Eight of these companies — Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mondelez, Hershey’s, Mars, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever — were assessed by the Rainforest Action Network in 2020 to be performing inadequately in avoiding unsustainable palm oil.

Additionally, palm oil is still the most efficient vegetable oil used. To get the same amount of alternative oils, like sunflower or soy oil, it would take four to 10 times more land which would only worsen the situation. 

Instead of boycotts, people should try to avoid unsustainable food choices when possible, instead of totally restricting themselves. The emotion and passion that drives consumers initially to boycott a company wanes over time, especially if the boycott may inconvenience them. Additionally, boycotts rarely affect sales revenue, and the only reason they may work is if they garner enough media attention to put pressure on the company. 

How does Parkway West High hold up in conversations about sustainable food? As a high school with almost 1,700 students, lunchtime is important. Not only does the cafeteria staff work hard to feed hundreds of teenagers a day, but the multiple vending machines around the school are hot spots for students to grab a snack. The taste of the food remains a debate amongst students but in terms of sustainability, Parkway West’s lunch is a mixed tray. 

High schoolers should be encouraged to assist in the preservation of endangered land and species. Loss of biodiversity and species anywhere is a problem for everyone regardless of how far away Borneo and Sumatra may seem and thus efforts to consume sustainably and protect endangered species should be global. However, deforestation is an issue that directly affects Missouri too. Though the state is not home to any palm oil plantations, Missouri has lost about 5% of its trees in the last two decades

Students can participate in activities like planting trees and taking care of the earth around them to take care of the earth on a local scale. Parkway West students can join the Cultivation Crew, a club dedicated to cleaning up trash and maintaining the plant life around the school. Donations to organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Action Network are beneficial because by giving money, their missions are being supported. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo also has an app that allows users to search brands and see what products use sustainable or unsustainable palm oil. 

“One of the best things you can do is write letters to companies. Emails are very ignorable, but I’ve heard from companies that handwritten letters, especially from children, are very hard to ignore,” Bowling said. “Be kind. There is always a person on the other side of the letter who is trying their best.”

View Comments (3)
Donate to Pathfinder
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of Parkway West High School. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Lauren Holcomb, Staff Writer
Pronouns: she/her Grade: 12 Years on staff: 3 What is your favorite piece of literature? "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath. Who is your hero? Either Joan Didion or Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? 
Donate to Pathfinder
Our Goal

Comments (3)

Please use your own name and keep your comments respectful!
All Pathfinder Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • S

    Serena LiuOct 24, 2023 at 11:28 am

    Incredible work

  • I

    Inaya ChishtiOct 24, 2023 at 10:32 am


  • B

    Blair HopkinsOct 24, 2023 at 9:43 am

    I am thrilled to see such a well-researched and timely article about the ethical consequences of the palm oil trade. It’s so important to talk about the horrors perpetrated by corporations and how we can respond. Thank you for your work, Lauren!