You’ve heard about palm oil, you’ve eaten some, you’ve even probably washed your face with it a thousand time. But you have no idea what it looks like, or why, all of a sudden, everybody started talking about it.

Palm soup (seems like everything was soup at the time) was first brought back to Europe in the XVth century by Portuguese explorers returned from Western Africa, who had witnessed locals eating it. But its uses trace back hundreds, even thousands of years before Europeans ‘discovered’ it. A 5,000 year old Egyptian tomb found in Abydos featured casks full of (rotten) palm oil.

Since then, this marginal crop has become one of the largest industries in the world, and has done more damage in just over 100 years that an elephant in as much time in a porcelain shop. We have become addicted to this destructive product. Where will this burnt and slippery trail taking the world?

How palm oil became big

Despite its high consideration at the time, Antiquity was not the top of the heap yet for palm oil. Soup and offerings were only two of many uses that humans could make with palm oil.

The Industrial revolution breakout

The industrial revolution in England, creating demand for machine lubricants and candle-making oil, was the beginning of industrial palm culture. The production was concentrated in Western Africa, where the most productive strains grew naturally (although they did not yet know it at the time). Despite early tries, rubber and other oils remain dominant.


Palm oil industry really picked up momentum at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1911, the first industrial oil-palm fields appeared in Indonesia and Malaysia, introduced by entrepreneurs from Netherlands, France and Belgium. Since then, these two countries have emerged as the uncontested leaders of palm oil production, concentrating more than 85% of world production between them.

In the meantime, new chemical processes in the food industry opened up a brand new playground for palm oil: food production. Consequently, demand exploded and palm oil as we know it was born.

1960s and onwards

Between 1962 and 1982 global exports of palm oil increased from around 0.5 million to 2.4 million tonnes annually and in 2008 world production amounted to 48 million tonnes. General production is expected to triple by 2050. Needless to say biodiversity there is not feeling very safe.

Palm oil fields in Malaysia

Monoculture vs. Nature

There are perfectly good reasons for this tremendous success story. Palm is incredibly efficient. It grows in a matter of months, has low needs in terms of irrigation, nutrients and fertilising, and on top of that, has a yield around ten times superior to soybean, olive, and sunflower; its vegetal oil competition.

Cheaper, more resistant and more versatile than its competitors, it has replaced other oils as the go-to product for processed food.

It is therefore no surprise that the oil-palm has turned into the most prominent cash crop in South East Asia in such a short period of time. This economic powerhouse, however, came at a tremendous environmental cost for local species, regional ecosystems, and the world as a whole.

The wake up call

The same countries that have developed palm oil industries are also the countries that have some of the most pristine and well-conserved rainforests in the wi(l)de world. Mythical species such as the orangutan (person of the forest in Malay), but also the Sun bear, the Bornean rhino and pygmy elephants, are endemic to these jungles. The tragedy is hard to overstate: the orangutan population has declined by well over 80%, and their habitat is shrinking faster than there is time to type it up.

The wildfires of 1997–1998

Between 1997 and 1998, the largest forest fires in the known history devastated the Indonesian rainforests. These fires amounted for a fifth of the world’s total emissions for these years. The consequences on the regional ecosystem were incredibly far-reaching. 8 million hectares of land were burned, countless people were affected by acute smog caused by the fumes. It is estimated that a third of the wild orangutan population disappeared in these fires.

“The haze” reached countries that were a couple of seas away, and impacted the regional economy significantly. These events were not caused by a natural dry spell or particularly stormy weather. It was the result of widespread, wide scale slash and burn practices by both small farmers and industrial producers.

Map of deforestation in indonesia

The extent of deforestation in Indonesia (Credit: Schumpeter Center)

Not only did these practices dry out thecarbon-rich peat soil but it also created the hotbeds (no pun intended) for the subsequent uncontrolled blazes.

Large protests and growing concern from the population pushed palm oil stakeholders to agree on certain limitations and best practices.

The future of rainforests is in your plate

In 2004, the roundtable on sustainable palm oil (RSPO) gathered the main players of the oil’s supply chain in order to address the widespread bad practices that would certainly, in the very short term, condemn the Bornean rainforest, and all the wealth that goes with it, including the producers’.

RSPO logo ethical origins and fair trade

RSPO sustainable origins logo

RSPO designed a quality control label to provide transparency to an industry responsible for so much deforestation in this region. Behind this alliance of small and large producers, distributors and consumers, a large palm oil promotion organisation. The objective is to make sustainable practices the norm in the industry.

However, almost 15 years into its mandate, RSPO has not made significant progress. Out of the 40 million metric tonnes of oil produced, only 2 million were certified sustainable… In response to the strong public pressure, a few major food producers have decided to implement a stricter control over their oil provisions. Others remain surprisingly slow and/or silent.

So what can we do?

We’re stuck between the highly unsustainable way of producing this highly useful product. From biodiesel to long conservation edibles, palm oil has some serious versatility arguments to exert. What is more, it is much, much more productive than all its rivals, especially soybean, another usual suspect of deforestation. Indonesia is the 3rd largest carbon emitter, and this industry’s deforestation practices are in large part responsible.

But palm oil production is prolonging its rise at a mind-boggling rate and now provides an indispensable source of revenue for their producers. The industry can be a boon as it can be the doom for orangutans, other trees, and also humans. Best practices must be imposed, and public scrutiny (which has already done so much for this cause) remain inflexible in order to hold the corporations accountable to their deforestation practices.

Then and only then will cookie jars and orangutans be able to peacefully live together. Although the monkey might take its revenge on the jar for breakfast. And rightly so.