Specifically, I look at how palm oil demand has caused a huge increase in oil palm plantations. As a result, producers clear-cut, log and burn peatlands and primary rainforests in order to make way for palm oil fields. By itself, palm oil is not necessarily a harmful product, but because palm oil is now in thousands of products, the rate at which it’s being consumed has caused deforestation and environmental destruction on a large scale.
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Known for the oil its fruits produce, these trees are consuming the countryside and rainforests
of Indonesia and Malaysia at a shocking pace.
And this massive terraforming endeavor is all happening to satisfy demand from western
countries hooked on palm oil’s ability to replace more costly alternatives in products
spanning from shampoos to pizza doughs.
If you look closely, palm oil is everywhere.
Yet, it can often disguise itself with sneaky aliases on ingredient lists.
The ubiquity of palm oil has become such a hot-button issue that the European Union decided
to ban subsidies of palm oil in biofuels by 2020.
The oil is shrouded in controversy and skepticism, and I want to know whether the environmental
impact of palm oil consumption warrants these drastic measures and whether boycotting or
banning palm oil is a reasonable solution.
While palm oil often ends up in products consumed mostly in the US and Europe, the story of
palm oil’s environmental devastation lies rooted in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Combined, these two countries satisfy 90% of the global demand for palm oil.
Through a medley of small landholders and large corporations, rural land has been transformed
into an oil palm monocropping factory.
According to one analysis, from 1990 to 2010, 9.6 million hectares of land were converted
to industrial oil palm farms in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.
That being said, the makeup of the land before conversion varied widely, and as a result,
the environmental impacts of this massive land transformation is contextual.
One study conducted by Forest Watch Indonesia claims that while some of this deforestation
is government sanctioned, almost 50% of natural forest loss is located outside of lands zoned
for logging or production.
And it’s this act of rapidly terraforming forest land into neat rows of oil palms that
has led to a backlash against palm oil products.
Not only is the loss of rainforest a problem due to the subsequent loss of the ability
to sequester large amounts of carbon, but it also means the destruction of rich biodiverse
And often, the easiest and cheapest way to read large swaths of forest for production
is through burning.
In the case of trees, this compounds the environmentally damaging act of clear-cutting by releasing
large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere via smoke.
Another peer-reviewed study on oil palm deforestation found that between 1990 and 2010, net Carbon
dioxide emissions from land use change due to oil palm plantations increased from 92
to 184 Teragrams of Carbon dioxide per yr in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.
That’s an increase of the equivalent of 36,800 Olympic sized swimming pools of Carbon
dioxide more per year.
Besides the deforestation of primary forests and rainforest, the draining and burning of
peatlands in Southeast Asia have caused huge problems for the environment and atmosphere.
Peatlands act like sponges for carbon dioxide: soaking up and storing large quantities of
CO2 in their waterlogged, low oxygen environments.
But when oil palm producers drain these swamps and burn the remaining foliage to establish
their crops, this carbon sequestration reverses and releases all the Carbon back into the
This destructive process has led to a sharp decline of peatlands in Indonesia and Malaysia,
and according to a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Southeast Asian
peatlands could disappear by 2030 if the rate of oil palm farming continues.
Ironically, one of the main drivers of this rampant proliferation of oil palm plantations
in Southeast Asia is the desire for sustainable biofuels in Europe.
Or rather it was until very recently.
Europe has long sought to replace its emissions-heavy diesel fuel with something a little more clean-burning.
Their solution was biofuels, chief of which was palm oil.
Although the EU’s cars appeared to be fewer emissions-heavy with biofuels in use, the
true consequences of their supposed environmentalism lay halfway across the world in razed forests
and burned peatlands.
So their sustainable fuel initiative was not really sustainable at all.
As a result, the European Commission banned palm oil biofuel subsidies in March of 2019.
While this is a step forward in slowing the boom of slash and burn oil palm plantations
in Southeast Asia, it also means a strong blow to smallholder farmers reliant on the
expanding palm oil industry.
The Guardian interviewed 66-year-old oil palm farmer, Hussain Mohamed, who decried the EU’s
choice to drawdown their consumption of palm oil biofuels.
He says, “I have spent all my money on the palm oil farm, I have recently planted new
trees that will last for the next 25 years, and my whole family relies on this.
It’s how my kids afford to study.”
So, while independent small farmers represent only a portion of oil palm production (with
the rest owned by much larger corporations), this decision could upend their livelihoods.
In a sense, the EU’s flip-flopping on palm oil has manufactured a boom and bust process
for smaller farmers who’ve invested their future in palm oil plantations.
The point here is this: palm oil production is indeed tied to environmentally harmful
practices like clear-cutting rainforests and draining and burning peatlands, and for that
reason, our global consumption of palm oil needs to be minimized or at least driven into
a slower more sustainable model that considers the environmental impacts of land use before
tearing apart beneficial forests.
However, extracting ourselves from this process is a complicated matter that can exact negative
consequences on independent growers and wage laborers now dependent on the Southeast Asian
palm oil production industry.
As the primary consumers of this oil, Europe and the United States have driven the demand
for and ultimately the reckless pace of palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia.
As a result, simply banning palm oils is not enough.
In an official statement, The World Wildlife Fund argues that rather than boycotting, working
from within to establish environmental best-practices for oil palm growers is the best way forward.
There’s definitely truth to this statement, because when done right, oil palms can yield
the highest amount of oil per acre of land, and if western countries drastically decrease
their demand for palm oil that could bring harsh disaster for many now reliant on a western
thirst for the oil.
Ultimately, the palm oil industry is now at the whims of economically and politically
powerful countries and is just one of many industries that sacrifice environmental health
and the well-being of poor and marginalized communities in pursuit of profits.
When it comes down to it the problems of the palm oil industry are symptoms of a much larger
problem: that there are countries who get to dictate global economies.
And those countries don’t operate on an ethic of environmental or social care, but
rather one of domination and exploitation.
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This post was previously published on YouTube.