The Pitfalls of Palm Oil

During the approximately 8 hours we spent driving through Costa Rica we couldn’t help but notice the thousands of acres of perfectly aligned palm trees that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. I had read and heard about palm oil plantations devastating our endangered tropical ecosystems but these trees looked so natural in their full grown state that it was hard to imagine just how much pain they had caused their environment.

Palms in Sri Lanka
photo via yotut

“Whether it’s used as an additive in soap, cosmetics or food, or processed into a biofuel, palm oil is one of the worst culprits in the climate crisis." -Los Angeles Times.

At one point we even had the opportunity to drive directly through a palm oil plantation on our way to visit the Kids Saving The Rain Forest animal refuge and we could see the palm oil being harvested. Everything looked fairly harmless compared to the mass acres of destruction and smoldering slash and burn residue I was used to studying.
It wasn’t until I was back in the states and was able to continue my palm oil research (partially through calls with Rolf at Greenpeace in San Fran who was an amazing resource-big hugs to him!)  that I truly began to understand the consequences far more scientifically.

So here’s the deal :

  • Palm oil is one of the world’s leading agricultural commodities and found in hundreds of products that we consume on a daily basis including cooking oil, cosmetics soap, cookies, and candy.
  • Palm oil is also being researched and used as a new biofuel.
  • The vast amounts of land needed to grow the oil palm trees have contributed to tropical rain forest destruction globally.
  • Unfortunately because of the volume and profit of palm oil, issues such as eco-system destruction and wildlife extinction although recognized, have been avoided by governments and food manufacturers.
  • Rain Forest Action Network States that “Transforming ecosystems into monocultural (meaning the continuous growing of one type of crop) palm oil plantations contributes heavily to climate change.
  • Deforestation accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the primary reason that Indonesia and Brazil are now the world’s third and fourth largest greenhouse gas polluters.”
  • An article in the New York Times states that “In Indonesia at least half of the world’s wild orangutans have disappeared in the last 20 years; and 80 percent of the orangutan habitat has either been depopulated or totally destroyed.”

As I studied all this further I started to feel horrible knowing that things as simple as chocolate chip cookies could have killed orangutans.  Speaking of cookies…get this!!! In 2008, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, two Girl Scouts from Ann Arbor, Michigan, seemed to realize the same thing and actually stopped selling the renowned Girl Scout cookies after they realized the affects the palm oil in their cookies had on the environment and this critically endangered species.  They even started an education drive, website and petition against palm oil and explained how palm oil production leads to conflict between orangutans and people.  “We’ve seen pictures of orangutans set afire and beaten.You really just want to reach out and do all that you can to help save them,” Madison told the Ann Arbor News.

These photos of destruction are incredible.

What Can We Do?

I urge everyone to read the ingredient labels on everything you put on or in your body, but in this case scan them closely for palm oil and palm kernel oil (and derivatives such as palmitic acid) and choose brands that don’t contain these substances.

Some of the most educational and powerful work that I have done has been through simply educating those around me. Send an email to your friends, forward them this blog or direct them to other sites that focus on the problems with palm oil. I truly believe that the more people that know about these issues and understand them, the more work we can do. I REALLY hope that the stance those two young girls took will perhaps inspire the Girl Scouts company to re-visit their ingredients and choices and make some changes too!!!

I am also a fan of writing our state representatives and senators and educating them on the topic.

For more info on the issues surrounding palm oil I also encourage you to visit,, or which each have a wealth of informative facts and research on the topic.

Spread the word and bit by bit we will see change!


About the author: Beth Doane is the founder of Andira & the Rain Tees project, and designer of the Rain Tees.

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