Environmental Impact Palm Oil Production
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Environmental Impact of Palm Oil Production 

Palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from a palm tree's fruits (Elaeis Guineensis). Oil palms are tropical trees that grow in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A tree can produce 40 kilograms of oil annually. 

Palm oil is versatile with various applications, from food to cosmetics. In Africa and Asia, they mostly use it as a cooking oil. Its high smoke point and stable nature make it ideal for cooking, baking, and personal care items like soaps and shampoos. Additionally, it serves as a critical biofuel source, particularly in biodiesel production. 

This article explores the production process of palm oil, its various applications, palm oil products, and its documented negative environmental impacts.

Palm Oil Production Process

Land cleared for a palm oil plantation.
Land cleared for palm oil plantation in Borneo as far as the eye can see. Photo Credit:
Lian Pin Koh (CC BY 2.0)

The global oil palm industry started growing in the 16th century. At first, palm groves only served the residents of Nigeria and West Africa until Europeans started an export trade system in the 16th century. The export trade system grew more profitable in the 19th century. 

Commercial-scale oil palm plantations didn't boom in West Africa because of internal conflicts and political instabilities. So, Southeast Asia became the hotspot for industrial-scale oil palm plantations. In the early 20th century, oil palm plantations became widespread in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia7, formerly Malaya.

Palm oil production involves several stages, including the establishment of plantations, harvesting fruits, sterilization, cooking, digestion, pressing, clarification, and storage. These steps ensure the final product is high quality and suitable for various applications.

Oil Palm Plantations and Harvesting

Palm oil bunches
Bunched of palm oil fruits. Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

The production of palm oil starts with oil palm plantations and the growth of palm fruits. To start an oil palm plantation, they plant a certain number of seedlings that grow into palm trees and begin bearing fruit in the third year, with the yield increasing as the years pass. However, palm trees produce fewer fruits when they reach 25 years of age and older.

Then, palm oil producers harvest the fruit bunches and carefully transport them to the designated processing site. They must cut the bunch from the oil palm tree branch to harvest palm kernels. The bunch falls to the ground with the help of gravity, which might impact some bruising on the bunch. A fruit bunch weighs about 25kg.

Instead of using manual labor to detach the fruit from the branch, some producers use a mechanized system to cut the fruit. To avoid excessive bruising on the fruits, some process it as early as 48 hours after harvesting. However, some producers advise that the fruit last for some days to facilitate fermentation. They transfer the fruit to a crate to measure and separate the good and bad fruits. 

The quality of the palm oil produced depends on the quality of fruits brought to the processing site. Producers cannot improve the quality of palm oil produced from bruised fruits. All they can do is to prevent further deterioration of the fruit.

Some factors that affect the quality of the oil palm fruits are the tree's age, genetic formation, harvesting technique, environmental conditions, handling, and transportation methods.

Palm Oil Extraction Process

Palm oil processing
Image by tk tan from Pixabay

The next step in producing palm oil from oil palms is sterilizing or cooking the fruits. At this stage of oil palm production, they use high-temperature wet-heat treatment on the fruits. Sterilization treatment uses pressurized heat, while the cooking method uses hot water. Smallholder oil palm plantations often use cooking because they cannot generate steam. 

Both high-temperature treatment methods weaken the fruit stem, making removing the fruit from bunches easy. The heat treatment also helps solidify proteins, allowing oil-bearing cells to come together and flow easily. It destroys oil-splitting enzymes and stops auto-oxidation and hydrolysis. 

In addition, cooking makes it easier to separate the fibrous material by weakening and softening the pulp’s structure. We know the production process of releasing palm oil as digestion. They use a steam-heated cylindrical vessel fitted with a central shaft with several stirring arms. The shaft rotates, pounds the fruit, and breaks down oil-bearing cells to release palm oil. Using a high temperature to digest the fruit reduces the thickness of the oil and completes the destruction of oil cells that started in the sterilization stage10.

Two methods, wet and dry pressing, extract oil from the mashed fruit. The wet method uses hot water to release the water, while the dry process applies mechanical pressure on the mashed fruit to release palm oil. 

Different presses cater to small batches of extraction or continuous batch extractions. Clarification of the extracted palm oil is essential to palm oil production. It removes impurities mixed with the oil. The oil from the pressing stage contains mixtures of cell debris, fibrous materials, water, and non-oil solids. 

Non-oily solids have thick viscosity. So, they add hot water to the mixture to thin it out. The solids drop to the bottom, while the oil floats to the top. Next, they move the diluted mixture through a screen to separate the coarse fiber. Then, they boil the liquid from the screening for about two hours. The liquid settles, with the oil floating at the top. To avoid the increment of fatty acids through the autocatalytic reaction of oil hydrolysis, they reduce the moisture content of the oil to 0.15%. Its moisture content must not pass 0.25%.

Storage and pressing

After clarification, they transfer the oil into a storage tank. They keep the oil stored at 50C with hot water or low-pressure steam-heating coils to prevent it from solidifying or separating. Iron storage tanks that don’t have a proper protective lining can contaminate the oil. Small-scale palm oil companies use petroleum oil drums or plastic drums to store oil.

The press and digestion process's fiber and palm nuts mixture can produce a second-grade oil for miscellaneous applications. Producers sort through the nuts and fiber before leaving it to heat itself. In local/small palm oil plantations, young adults and older adults often sort through the nuts and fibers to make a living.

They cover it and allow its chemical reaction (internal exothermic reactions) to heat it up for a maximum of three days. Then, the fiber goes through the press to release technical oil often used in soap making. Larger producers use the recovered kernels as fuel to power their steam boilers.

Uses of Palm Oil   

Palm oil is one of the most versatile natural resources in various aspects of our lives. The most popular application we know is using palm oil in cooking and food products. However, there are many ways to use oil palm. They include:

Food Products Application  

We can find palm oil in many of our regular food products2, including blended butter, dietary supplements, and baked products. 

Palm oil has a unique feature that's not common to other vegetable oil crops. It contains the same amounts of saturated and unsaturated fats. Palm oil has a solid fat fraction known as palm stearin, which makes it suitable for shortenings, vanaspati, and margarine. 

Vanaspati is a multi-purpose hydrogenated fat commonly used in India and some Middle East countries. Also, palm oil's ability to remain in a semi-solid state at an ambient temperature makes it perfect for producing margarine.

We also use palm oil for deep-fat frying and cooking food submerged in hot oil. The oil is usually at temperatures of 150°C to 190°C. The hot oil transfers heat, flavor, smell, and taste to the fried food product. 

Some companies also use palm oil as a cocoa butter replacer in chocolates. Cocoa butter provides chocolate with flavor, gloss, smooth, and brittle texture. It's a special fat with a high melting point at body temperature but has a brittle texture at room temperature. However, manufacturers substitute cocoa butter with fats similar to cocoa butter because of a shortage of supplies. They use oil palm because it has the same fatty acid distribution. 

The minor bioactive components of oil palm are useful as a dietary supplement. Pharmacists isolate and concentrate these bioactive components and use them to fortify foods. Also, they use them as dietary supplements in capsule forms. Examples of these capsules include vitamin E, phytosterols, and carotenoids.

Non-food Applications

Manufacturers also use palm oil, like other vegetable oils, to produce lubricants, biofuel, polymers, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. 

Biodiesel 

Biodiesel is a fuel derived from vegetable oils. There is an increase in palm oil demand because of the rise in biodiesel usage3. Biodiesel is an alternative to crude oil that has undergone tests (EPA Tier I and II) to certify its emission and health benefits. We can directly use palm oil as biofuel or methyl esters (PME). 

Palm oil has similar qualities to petroleum diesel. So, we can use it directly on diesel engines without modifying it. The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Elsbett GmbH developed an engine that runs on palm oil fuel.

Lubricant  

Manufacturers also use palm oil to create lubricants. They create anti-wear hydraulics, grease, two-cycle, chain bar, mold release, and anti-corrosion lubricants. It doesn't dry up quickly, and they stay better in metal frames. Using palm oil-based lubricants leads to less environmental pollution.

Printing ink 

In recent times, manufacturers are shifting away from the use of mineral-based ink and using inks made with oil palm. The global demand for vegetable oils to manufacture printing ink is almost 120,000 tonnes.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) created a vegetable oil-based printing ink with the Coates Brothers in 1992. They use vegetable oil for ink because it has more intense colors and excellent machine stability. It is not carcinogenic, meaning it is cancer risk for free. Palm oil ink lacks volatile organic components, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and an unpleasant smell attached to mineral ink.

Surfactant in cosmetic and personal care products 

Lately, people are shifting towards beauty care items produced with natural ingredients. Especially people practicing sustainable living. These natural products have gradually replaced synthetic products in the market for several years. 

Manufacturers now produce beauty and personal care products with palm oil. Also, palm oil biomass is an excellent packaging alternative for cosmetic items instead of plastic.

Negative Environmental Impacts of the Palm Oil Industry

Deforestation 

More palm oil plantations
Photo Credit: a_rabin (CC BY 2.0)

The high demand for palm oil increased the acres of palm oil plantations and other oil crops. Oil palm plantations grow on extensive areas of tropical forests with diverse species of trees. 

For instance, Malaysia's tropical forests contain over 2000 species of trees, Asian and pygmy elephants. Also, Indonesia's tropical forests contain endangered species of animals like rhinos and the Sumatran tigers. The growth of oil palm plantations catering to the high demand for palm oil production contributes to 0.5% of deforestation4.

Global palm oil production increased significantly between 1980 and 2014. It went from 4.5 million tons to 70 million tons. As of October 2017, commercial oil palm plantations occupy a land area of 18.7 million hectares globally. It consumes more land than other oil crops.

Producers destroy large expanses of land to plant oil palm trees to satisfy the increasing global demand for palm oil use. They cut down logs of trees and set them on fire. This method of deforestation, known as slash and burn, is illegal. Many producers illegally clear forests because they don't want to pay. It costs about $200 to clear land using the right equipment and chemicals.

Deforestation is terrible for the environment. It leaves various species of animals vulnerable by destroying their habitats. The method used to destroy large expanses of land also affects the atmosphere and human health. 

Read more: Deforestation facts

Loss of Biodiversity 

Road made to access palm oil plantations
Road made to access palm oil plantations. Photo Credit: Felix Dance (CC BY 2.0)

Expansion of oil palm agriculture over intact forest landscapes can affect downstream biodiversity. When cultivators of major oil crops destroy tropical forests, they also destroy the homes and habitats of many plant and animal species. 

The current global annual demand of the palm oil industry threatens about 193 species with extinction. Research shows that further oil palm expansion will affect 65% of threatened birds and 54% of threatened mammals.

It also reduces the population of the native species of the areas where palm oil is a significant cash crop. For instance, about 10,000 out of the almost 100,000 critically endangered Bornean orangutans are in areas with oil palm plantations. Also, oil palm cultivation is monoculture. This means that cultivators grow oil palm in a spot for an extended period, with only a single crop. The monoculture practice affects the Amazonian biodiversity. 

The plantation doesn't offer habitable space for native forest species. According to the results of a bird survey carried out in the Eastern Amazon9, oil palm plantations only kept the destitute bird species.

Another study conducted in Malaysia showed a 34.9% reduction in the biodiversity richness in oil palm plantations compared to forest habitats1. 80% of the species in the tropical forests of Malaysia were absent in the plantations. The reduction in biodiversity is because of poor ground vegetation, poor microclimate, and lack of structural complexity.

Climate Change 

Oil palm produces greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the climate change occurring in the atmosphere. There are various ways oil palm development contributes to climate change. Initially, we explored deforestation as one aspect of palm oil’s environmental impact. The consequences of deforestation include loss of biodiversity and loss of carbon sequestration. 

Palm tree cultivators create cultivating space by burning tropical forests. Burning large landscapes produces an outrageous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the trees in these forests were a form of carbon storage. The tropical rainforest can store up to 272 tons of carbon per hectare. Using the old forests of Sumatra as an example, they used to store 195 tons of carbon. The palm oil plantation now only holds 28 tons of carbon per hectare8.

Also, the conversion of tropical peat swamps in Indonesia and Malaysia contributes to the emission of toxic gases into the atmosphere. 

Malaysia and Indonesia contribute 0.44% and 0.74% to the annual global emissions, while Southeast Asia contributes up to 27% of greenhouse gas. The losses of peat land to oil palm expansion are damning because peat lands store carbon 28 times more than tropical forests5. These peat lands are essential to reducing global warming, but the palm oil industry couldn't care less about it. 

Child Labor and Exploitation of Workers 

The Indonesian sustainable palm oil industry is not what it seems. They are not completely sustainable because they exploit their workforce and encourage child labor. According to UNICEF, up to 5 million children work in the palm oil industry6. The industry is labor intensive, with women making up a larger workforce. The child worker risks losing his cultural identity and food security.

Opting for Sustainable Palm Oil

As consumers, we can opt for sustainably sourced palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) accredits Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). RSPO is an international non-profit organization established in 2004, aiming to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the palm oil industry and engaging stakeholders like producers, processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers, investors, and environmental and social NGOs.

RSPO certification is a globally recognized standard for sustainable palm oil, ensuring that palm oil is environmentally responsible, respects the rights of workers and local communities, and contributes to improving social and economic conditions.

RSPO works with independent certification bodies that assess and verify compliance with its Principles and Criteria based on audits of palm oil plantations and production facilities. Once a producer meets these criteria, they can sell their palm oil with the CSPO label, which assures consumers that the product has been sourced responsibly.

Conclusion  

Palm oil production, compared to other major oil crops, is sustainable. It produces more oil than crops like soybean, sesame, peanut, and sunflower crops. Also, it doesn’t require as much energy for production. 

However, it has multiple adverse effects on the environment. Oil palm expansion destroys the habitats of forest animals. It also releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Palm oil production can be more sustainable than it is currently, but companies and governments have to be intentional about it. 

Sustainable palm oil production is possible with the strict implementation of policies that prevent deforestation and the conversion of natural ecosystems to oil palm plantations. Also, the policies should cater to the human rights of the industry’s workforce and the supply chain. Consumers should consciously purchase only sustainable palm oil with the appropriate certifications from trusted bodies.

1

Dhandapani, Selva. (2015). Biodiversity loss associated with oil palm plantations in Malaysia: Serving the need versus Saving the nature.

2

Pande, Garima & Akoh, Casimir & Lai, Oi Ming. (2012). Food Uses of Palm Oil and Its Components. Palm Oil: Production, Processing, Characterization and Uses. 561-586. 10.1016/B978-0-9818936-9-3.50022-8.

3

Ghazali, Razmah & Yusof, Mohtar & Ahmad, Salmiah. (2006). Non-Food Applications of Palm-Based Products – Market Opportunities and Environmental Benefits. Palm Oil Development. 44. 8-14.

4

Potapov, P., Hansen, M. C., Laestadius, L., Turubanova, S., Yaroshenko, A., Thies, C., Smith, W., Zhuravleva, I., Komarova, A., Minnemeyer, S., & Esipova, E. (2017). The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013Science advances3(1), e1600821.

5

Cooper, H. V., Evers, S., Aplin, P., Crout, N., Dahalan, M. P. B., & Sjogersten, S. (2020). Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from conversion of peat swamp forest to oil palm plantationNature communications11(1), 407.

6

(2016, October). PALM OIL AND CHILDREN IN INDONESIA: Exploring the Sector’s Impact on Children’s Rights (pdf). UNICEF.

7

Lai, O., Tan, C., & Akoh, C. C. (2012). Palm Oil : Production, Processing, Characterization, and Uses in SearchWorks Catalog. Stanford Libraries.

8

Environmental, Economic, and Social Consequences of the Oil Palm Boom. Matin Qaim, Kibrom T. Sibhatu, Hermanto Siregar, Ingo GrassAnnual Review of Resource Economics 2020 12:1, 321-344

9

Lees, A. C., Moura, N. G., de Almeida, A. S., & Vieira, I. C. (2015). Poor prospects for avian biodiversity in Amazonian oil palmPloS one10(5), e0122432.

10

Poku, K. (2002). Small-Scale Palm Oil Processing in Africa. FAO AGRICULTURAL SERVICES BULLETIN.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Image by tk tan from Pixabay
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