Palm oil: Down from the conservation barricades and out of the rhetorical trenches

Oil palm is alternatively seen as a gift from god or a crime against humanity; according to science, it is neither

Norwegian University of Life Sciences

IMAGE: The view of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Credit: Douglas Sheil
IMAGE: The view of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Credit: Douglas Sheil

Oil palm is neither the devil’s work, nor a godsend to humanity. Its effects on its surroundings largely depends on case-specific circumstances. Those who ask to boycott all palm oil due to its contribution to deforestation should also consider boycotting coffee, chocolate and coconut if they wish to be consistent.

Are you for or against palm oil?

Ask anyone who has kept half an eye on the news the last couple of years, and they will most likely say “Against, obviously. The plantations destroy orangutan habitats, right? We’ve all seen the videos.”

The environmental impacts of the palm oil industry are widely recognised. Unsurprisingly, many people, including many conservation pundits, consider oil palm a major evil. What is less widely recognized is the extent to which this industry has benefited people. Oil palm development, if well-planned and managed, can provide improved incomes and employment and generate investments in services and infrastructure. These alternative viewpoints fuel a polarised debate in which oil palm is alternatively seen as a gift from god or a crime against humanity.

According to science, it is neither.

Flawed debate

Two leading scientists on forest conservation and management call for a more nuanced debate when it comes to palm oil and their plantations.

“Our key message is the following: The effects of oil palm, on the environment and on human society, are case-specific and largely dependent on circumstances. This must be recognised when conducting debate, and making management and consumer decisions,” professor Douglas Sheil from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) says.

In a new scientific article, he and collaborator, professor Erik Meijaard from the University of Queensland, Australia and University of Kent, UK, explore questions related to the production and use of palm oil and other vegetable oils. Between them, they have more than 50 years of research experience on tropical forest conservation.

The only cause of deforestation?

Oil palm is widely reviled for causing large-scale deforestation in the species-rich tropics. With 18.7 million hectares of industrial-scale oil palm plantations in 2017, it is ranked 4th in terms of planted area for an oil crop, behind soy, rapeseed (or canola) and maize.

“Currently oil palm produces about 35% of global vegetable oils on less than 10% of the total land under oil crops,” Sheil says.

“Overall, conversion to industrial scale oil palm development appears associated with less than 0.5% of global deforestation but surpasses 50% in specific regions such as Malaysian Borneo.”

Locally, it can be environmentally devastating, but on a global scale, it is just one of many crops that should receive attention from environmentalists and government.

“Bananas, beef, cane sugar, chocolate, coconuts, coffee, pineapples, soybeans, tea and vanilla, to name a few, are all produced in previously forested tropical areas,” he comments.

“But the attention these receive is hardly comparable to the scrutiny that is directed towards palm oil.”

A wider perspective

“There is no doubt that the impacts from oil palm plantings on the environment and biodiversity at local scales can be summed up as highly negative,” Sheil says.

“But in terms of global outcomes, the debate changes.”

It is imperative to assess to what extent the negative impacts can be reduced or avoided.

“For example, by planting palm oil, or other crops for that matter, in areas that are deforested already. It is better to utilise already degraded areas, than cutting down new ones.”

This is already being done; it is just not widely acknowledged but needs to be encouraged.

“Another element that is insufficiently recognised, is that the negative consequences of the expansion of palm oil plantations in one location are potentially offset by, for example, reduced expansion of other oil crops elsewhere.”

Poverty alleviator

Who would deny a parent the opportunity of feeding their starving children? For some, palm oil is a way out of poverty when few other options exist. And economically, it is often a sensible option. Oil palms will grow in conditions that would defeat most other crops, and decades of successful breeding has increased yields dramatically.

“Regardless of measure, land, labour or inputs invested, oil palm is an exceptionally profitable crop,” Meijaard says.

Scams and broken promises

However, palm oil is tainted with stories of corruption and disreputable practices. Its ability to produce considerable profits, even from areas where comparable options were absent, has fuelled a boom in speculation, opportunism and dubious practices. In locations with weak or corrupt institutions, this has parallels to the resource curse seen in some other high value commodities, such as mineral oil.

The immediate benefits of land clearance to develop oil palm can also be highly profitable encouraging some unscrupulous investors to access and clear large areas for the timber value on the promise of longer-term oil palm developments that never appear.

“Such scams have been common across Indonesia in recent decades, with both officials and communities duped into giving away their forest and timber for a broken promise,” Meijaard says.

The authors emphasise that benefits from oil palm development likely depend much on the local context, such as variation between companies in how they engage with communities.

North or south?

The world demands vegetable oils, and if palm oil is not available, other crops will replace it.

“A call for reductions in palm oil production will require an increase in other, higher latitude, oil crops, like soy, maize, sunflower and rapeseed,” Meijaard says.

The largest areas allocated for the production of vegetable oils are in the USA, China and Brazil, although the predominant crops there, maize and soy beans, also produce non-oil products. Nevertheless, among the world’s 20 largest producers of oil crops, only the tropical countries of Indonesia, Nigeria, and Malaysia have more than 10% of their land areas allocated to oil palm. A global shift away from palm oil would require more production of other oils.

“This would most likely benefit economies in the global North, where deforestation for agriculture took place a lot earlier than in the tropics.”

The danger of extremism

“Boycotts against palm oil by consumers or consuming countries are a legitimate expression of social and environmental concerns,” Meijaard says. H

e continues with warning that they punish innocent and guilty alike.

“Banning palm oil rather than seeking improved standards risks lowering rather than raising the practices.”

If similar standards are not addressed to other crops and commodities, including those produced in consumer countries themselves, such boycotts can appear political, prejudiced and protectionist.

“We are already seeing palm oil producing countries protesting against what they see as Western double-standards.”

“If we are not careful, there is a risk of driving them even further away.”

Introducing nuance

“Stepping outside this rhetorical extremism is necessary if we seek resolution and pragmatic advances. An important question is how to plan, guide, and assess oil palm developments to foster the greatest benefits and least harm,” Meijaard comments.

The authors recommend that a more complete accounting should consider not just the environmental aspects but the influence on poverty, hunger, and all the factors considered under the 17 UN-Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“What is right and what is wrong depends on who you ask, and it is unlikely that there are clear universal answers as to how to best tackle contemporary global problems in a just and equitable manner, apart from providing informed choice.”

“We have to bring nuance back into the debate,” he concludes.


About the authors:

Erik Meijaard is Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland in Australia and Honorary Professor at the University of Kent. Douglas Sheil is Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). They have extensive research experience from the tropics, especially southeast Asia, and both are members of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force (Meijaard is also chair).


Meijaard, E.; Sheil, D. 2019. The moral minefield of ethical oil palm and sustainable development. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. 2:22

DOI: doi: 10.3389/ffgc.2019.00022

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May 29, 2019 2:17 pm

“Those who ask to boycott all palm oil due to its contribution to deforestation should also consider boycotting coffee, chocolate and coconut if they wish to be consistent.”

Very true, although not real keen on using this resource for biodiesel when we have a lot of refining capacity around the world from abundant relatively cheap fossil fuels. Most of it has a much higher and better use as a food and material source for other manufacturing, mostly in the agribusiness. But an excellent article, and couldn’t agree more having seen first hand in my travels palm oil plantations around the world. Of course it is a travesty what goes on in certain third world countries, using slash and burn clearing of pristine jungle habitat for a palm plantation. That should be condemned and controlled if possible, although we all know it will take a lot of effort to stop greed from corrupting 3rd world governments and people. Nice to see a balanced view from our Norwegian friends.

Reply to  Earthling2
May 29, 2019 3:27 pm


My late father in law was a senior UN forester. If anyone knew his way around jungle or plantation it was him.

He despised the loony greens. They condemned professional logging yet he managed millions of acres in his lifetime working with these people and they treated forest like farmers treat their fields. Trees are like any other crop, they are a harvest that needs careful management, just over a much longer timescale.

He also respected local loggers, frequently condemned as illegal because in the absence of any other fuel, they provided local communities with timber heating and cooking.

Nor was that restricted to quaint little villages, it was entire towns and cities. The problem being, they didn’t have the resources of the UN to replant before they moved on, so farmers moved in, depleted the nutrients in the land within 3 years, and with no fossil fuel derived energy to provide fertilizers, they also moved on, following the ‘illegal’ loggers leaving the land barren; invariably washed into rivers unimpeded by vegetation.

The entire cycle could have been stopped easily by helping the areas build their own fossil fuelled power stations to provide the heat and power they needed.

As it is, from memory, I believe there are 150 or so coal fired power stations in planning, being built, or already built, many funded by the Chinese.

I was told many over 20 years ago the next human battleground will be energy. I scoffed at the time but how prophetic was that prediction then.

Reply to  HotScot
May 30, 2019 1:30 am

Thank you. That is very interesting.

Reply to  HotScot
May 31, 2019 12:25 pm

Salute Scot !!

Here in Florida’s Panhandle we have a zillion acres of pine farms ( sombody has to make those pellets for the Brits to use, heh?). One company scarfed up what they could from settlers and homesteaders and such almost a hundred years ago. The company has sold and developed a lot, but it is Florida’s second largest private landowner, owning about 567,000 acres in the state
St. Joe eventually owned more than one million acres (4,000 km²) by late 1990’s.

Between St. Joe and others, I can drive almost a hundred miles looking at tree farm after tree farm on each side of the highway.

The problem with the greenies is they want instant satisfaction. They only see the damage this year and many times think the new plantation used to be pristene tropical habitat. Tree farms take time to produce a marketable product, unlike annual crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts, and so forth. As we have seen here in the Panhandle, good forest management and commercial forest exploitation can be good for all. After cutting down many longleaf pines over a hundred years ago, good management and care can now boast the largest acreage of longleaf pines in the U.S.

Reading about the palm oil today, I hope they quit using a single drop for biofuel for “the cause”. That stuff sems very valuable for many products and uses I had not even suspected.

Gums sends…

Reply to  Earthling2
May 30, 2019 4:28 am

“Those who ask to boycott all palm oil due to its contribution to deforestation should also consider boycotting coffee, chocolate and coconut if they wish to be consistent.”

Seems to me this is a nonsensical “straw-man” argument – a fallacy. Nobody I know wants to boycott ALL palm oil. It is the most popular cooking oil in SE Asia.

The people I respect have only ever spoken out against biofuels, and I share their objections. Biofuels, in general, and biodiesel from palm oil in particular, are a bad idea – causing the destruction of huge tracts of rainforest to produce a product that is anti-environmental and uneconomic – usually requiring “renewable fuel” mandates and/or huge subsidies for the industry to economically survive.

The authors framed the debate incorrectly, and then proceeded to knock it down – a classic “straw-man”.

I suggest a better starting point is “Most biofuel technologies are uneconomic, wasteful and environmentally destructive”. I would include in this “bad list” fuel ethanol from sugarcane and corn, and biodiesel from palm and other vegetable oils. Technologies that can be economic and pro-environment include biodiesel from waste tallow and other energy technologies that process other waste streams such as municipal garbage. These are general principles and there can be notable exceptions.

Regards, Allan

old white guy
May 30, 2019 5:16 am

Lets go all in and ban all foods. Good grief people are becoming stupid.

Crispin in Waterloo
May 29, 2019 2:44 pm

“However, palm oil is tainted with stories of corruption and disreputable practices.”

And how.

Yes there is great demand for palm oil, but sometimes it is for a stupid reason: bio-diesel mandates to “reduce fossil fuel use”.

In NW Indonesia there are massive fires burning each year that pollute the skies past Singapore (400 micro gm/m^2) all the way to Penang and beyond. Absolutely unbelievable. And what is burning? Peat. Peat makes a lousy base for palm trees. They grow up and fall over because the base is so unstable.

The guys hired to set fire to the peat are working for corrupt businessmen who live in Singapore, mostly. They are no clearing wood and selling it, they are burning everything to plant palm trees.

There was an effort by an expatriated Dutchman to convince the Minister relevant that it was pointless to permit the planting of oil palms on peat as they trees don’t live long before falling over. He told me he had convinced them to ban it totally, but the burning continues – it is very difficult to extinguish.

Next, oil palm working is very dangerous. Many workers are killed each year, and they make a pittance. It is akin to logging in Canada – one of the most dangerous things you can do for money. The workers in most plantations are not locals. They are exploited temporary workers paid a pittance and sent away afterwards. Like picking vegetable in the USA, it is work locals won’t do.

We we need oils, and we need work, but burning peat forests to plan oil palms – which is happening on a big scale – is nutz and should be stopped. As for ‘replacing it with other fuel crops”, that is only true to the extent that these silly subsidized replacements/additives are mandated by short-sighted governments in their quest to “save the planet”.

We have lots of time to develop electric vehicles and mobile-ready storage systems. There no urgent need to convert forests to biofuel plantations or sugar cane for ethanol and so on, just for vehicle fuel. There is no crisis save the ones where foolishness and a lack of proper consultation lead to bad results.

The only good think I have seen coming out of the oil plantations is the palm kernels which make a great fuel that substitutes for coal. They crate a lot of pollution of the biomass remnant kind – empty hand bunches they are called. Sort of like bagasse – a great fuel if you don’t have too much of it, after which it is a major disposal problem.

Tom Halla
May 29, 2019 2:47 pm

The simplest way to reduce the impact of palm oil plantations would be to repeal the “renewable fuel” mandates.

Bloke down the pub
Reply to  Tom Halla
May 30, 2019 3:44 am

My biggest gripe about palm oil is that it was promoted by green legislation but now seen as a green disaster. Is there any green legislation that has not had consequences that have turned out to be worse than the problem they were trying to solve?

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
May 30, 2019 6:54 am

“Is there any green legislation that has not had consequences that have turned out to be worse than the problem they were trying to solve?”

Radical green actions have never been about the environment – it’s all about total control.

No one is claiming that Marxists are intelligent – they clearly are not. The leadership seize onto any notion that will disrupt peaceful society, create poverty and chaos and thus give them total control. Their followers will follow anything that moves and sounds good – this describes about the lower third of human intellect – people who are far too stupid to vote – but they do.

Marxists (aka Progressives) can only be described as insane – they want to repeat the horrors of the 20th Century, with over 200 million innocent lives destroyed by the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and lesser psychos like Pol Pot and most Tin Pot leftist dictators in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – most recently Chávez and successors in Venezuela.

In fact, the radical greens have already destroyed the lives of almost as many people as their 20th Century counterparts. This green carnage is described in my essay “Hypothesis: Radical Greens are the Great Killers of Our Age”.

Radical greens are a reboot of the old Marxists, the “useful idiots” in the West who used to support the failed Soviet Union – they seem to think it will all go better this time – it won’t.

May 29, 2019 2:55 pm

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (or palm kernels).
France has about 14% of its original forest cover left, Ireland has less than 1%!
I wonder where the the aurochs, wild horses, wolves etc etc are now?. 180 + species wiped out from Europe.
The capture of wild baby orangutans for zoos and for household pets is also a serious drain on the wild populations.

Flavio Capelli
May 29, 2019 6:47 pm

Wolves are making a serious comeback in Italy.

R Shearer
May 29, 2019 3:17 pm

Instead of palm oil, it’s vile name could be palm tar.

Reply to  R Shearer
May 29, 2019 4:38 pm

Good one

May 29, 2019 3:56 pm

During my 17 odd years working in Papua New Guinea, PNG, I saw many
examples of farming practices. For the Europeans it was plantations of Palm trees for copra, for the local people it was mostly slash and burn.

A community farms their gardens until the soil is low in nutrients, then
they cut down a bit of the rain forest the same size, and plant new crops.
The original gardens slowly revert to the rain forest crops.

While the Worlds population keeps increasing then short of a war and or
disease, , the only other alternative to starvation is cannabism, or the film
version of it, “Solient Green “”.


May 29, 2019 4:07 pm

no…you are growing a crop that is totally unnecessary

““Another element that is insufficiently recognised, is that the negative consequences of the expansion of palm oil plantations in one location are potentially offset by, for example, reduced expansion of other oil crops elsewhere.” other words……..they are going to clear and plant somewhere anyway

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Latitude
May 29, 2019 5:27 pm

They clearly lack any elementary knowledge of economics. Planting oil palm “here” doesn’t make planting oil palm or other oil crops “there” any less likely on it’s own. In an expanding market, with significant demand pull, you are much more likely to get oil palm planted both “here” and “there”.

Reply to  D. J. Hawkins
May 29, 2019 6:55 pm

No. If a given crop is overplanted, with supply exceeding demand, prices plummet, and then less forest gets cleared to grow more crop.

Supply and demand rules except when governments intervene to disrupt the markets.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Duane
June 2, 2019 11:09 am

Thanks for not reading what I actually wrote, Duane. Your reading comprehension score is in negative territory.

Reply to  Latitude
May 29, 2019 10:34 pm

It’s possible that the low-cholesterol trend some years back caused much of this increase in palm oil crops which is now backfiring. Ask a greenie if they’ve ever eaten palm oil products to have lower cholesterol, such as advertised on chip packets etc.

Stuart Lynne
May 29, 2019 4:21 pm

We see that China (as one of the leading markets) is playing politics with vegetable oils (not importing Canola from Canada, Soybeans from the US.) Which leads to the conclusion that they are able to source alternatives easily. Which leads to the second conclusion that the world production of vegetable oils is large enough that there is probably an oversupply.

Walter Sobchak
May 29, 2019 6:18 pm

Maybe we should consider letting the people who live in those countries manage their own resources so that they can feed their families, grow in prosperity and contribute to world trade.

Of course that would mean respecting the choices of brown people, and how can we expect good liberals to do that. Whatever happened to the white man’s burden anyway?

May 29, 2019 7:03 pm

The politics playing started with Trump launching a trade war with China … and also launching trade wars with all of our allies, even against allies with whom the US has a trade surplus (Canada). Naturally other nations retaliate.

Ya wanna sell American goods overseas, like ag products? Then don’t launch trade wars.

Contrary to Trump’s dimwitted boasting, trade wars are never “easy to win”. There are no winners in trade wars, only losers. And American consumers, who actually pay the tariffs, not the foreigners, are the big losers, along with American producers who lose access to foreign markets during trade wars.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Duane
May 30, 2019 4:08 am

Such silliness. Must be the result of a serious affliction of …… Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Surprise, surprise, …… all that writing and “impeachment” wasn’t mention.

Frank the Norwegian
Reply to  Duane
May 31, 2019 12:25 am

Well Duane – do you condone China’s blatant disrespect of copyright and IP? Is it dimwitted to challenge this piracy?

May 29, 2019 7:13 pm

I think this article loses sight of the fact that clearing rain forests to get palm oil for biodiesel is criminal.

Jacques Lemiere
Reply to  joel
May 29, 2019 11:24 pm

crime against?

Reply to  Jacques Lemiere
May 30, 2019 4:19 am

The wanton destruction of natural settings is considered a crime in many jurisdictions.
Destroying the habitat of endangered species is, in our enlightened era, considered a criminal act.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  joel
May 30, 2019 4:15 am

I think this article loses sight of the fact that clearing rain forests to get palm oil for biodiesel is criminal.

Not as criminal as is using corn for “fueling” automobiles …… rather than for “fueling” people.

May 29, 2019 9:59 pm

Do these people condemn Palm Oil use soaps, detergents, toothpastes, shampoos etc.glycerol etc.? They’re all made from Palm Oil as a starting raw material. Will they give up all usage of these products?


Reply to  Venter
May 30, 2019 4:48 pm

was there no soap/detergent/toothpasre etc befor palm oil

May 30, 2019 2:05 am

Palm oil is the latest item to undergo “demonisation” in the UK, following closely on the heels of plastic, this despite the fact that nearly half the manufactured consumables on EU supermarket shelves contain palm oil.
One small supermarket chain has stated its intention to eliminate palm oil from all items it sells, so we are back to lard and butter as food ingredients (other edible oils not giving the same taste and finish to pastry products apparently). Doubtless the larger chains will feel compelled to accompany them in this virtue signal. Just stop burning the stuff in IC engines, there’s plenty of diesel to go round.

Millions around the world now depend on the production of palm oil, encouraged by greentwattery, and with equal lack of forethought we (in the west) look set to abandon the industry as foolishly as we encouraged it. Yes, the whole thing is riddled with corruption (as are many things “green”) as outlined by several posters above, but it really would serve us right if the abandoned plantations were turned over to opium poppies and cannabis plantations.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  PeterGB
May 30, 2019 4:24 am

Palm oil is the latest item to undergo “demonisation” in the UK

What next, ………. palm oil and global warming causes cancers and pedophilia?

Paul Penrose
May 30, 2019 9:34 am

They want a nuanced debate? That’s just crazy talk! /sarc

June 2, 2019 5:55 pm

While slightly off topic the following may be of interest .

Re. Walter May 29. The reference to the “”White mans burden”” reminds
me of a remark made by my Grandfather, he was from Belfast, ran away
from home and joined The Royal Dublin Funkier . He went from a bugle
boy of 15 in about 1870 to retiring as a Major, DSO and bar, DSC, MC
and bar, in 1919. He told me that in South Africa the clergy would tell
the “”darkies”” to close their eyes and say the Lords Prayer, then while eyes
still shut the army would run up the Union Jack and claim the place for
Queen Victoria.

He was a remarkable man, he invested in South African gold and brewery
shares, and despite having or rather his wife 6 daughters and 2 sons retired
as a very rich man. In today’s money a millioneeer . I am very proud of
Grandad Bourke.


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