Palm oil is just that: oil from the fruit of a palm tree. Sounds as vegan as anything, right? Well, this most certainly plant-derived oil found in processed foods, makeup, household cleaners, toiletries, biodiesel, and more, is far from a black and white ingredient. It’s one of the world’s most hotly debated crops, with concerns over deforestation, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, and a slew of human rights violations in its wake, thus begging the question: IS palm oil vegan? [tweet this]

Today’s video post is one that’s been requested more times that I can count and one that I greatly hesitated to produce. Not because I think the truth about palm oil is unimportant by any means, but because when you are a brand new vegan or when you’re considering going vegan, the intricacies of what is or is not vegan beyond meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, can easily overwhelm, leading to the exasperated “well what CAN I eat?!” or even worse “being vegan’s too hard, I might as well not try!”

While it’s always important for us to be informed about the products we are choosing, and I believe education is absolutely key, I want to say to brand new or would-be vegans to focus on eliminating animal products first, get your bearings, and you’ll start to find a growing awareness of other elements. This is not to excuse the effects of palm oil we’ll be discussing, but rather to assure you that in removing animal products from your diet, you will be making a huge impact already in all the areas we will be covering.

I’m going to attempt to make this video as simple and concise as possible by touching on the major elements. If you want to delve deeper, which I’m always a fan of, please see the resources below. This issue is terrifically complex and while I’ll relay suggestions at the end, you’ll see it’s difficult to produce a clear-cut yes or no to the videos establishing query.

There are three main areas of concern when it comes to palm oil: the impact on the environment, animals, and people. I’ll briefly touch on each, though all three are inextricably linked.

The Impact on People

Let’s start with the social impact, or human side of palm oil. Once heralded, even by the United Nations, [12] as a high-yielding, environmentally-friendly, economically-viable and even healthy “magic bullet” to help struggling farmers in undeveloped nations build economic stability and provide a cheap yet nutritious source of calories, palm oil production has proven to be far from the golden child of workers rights.

Though some case studies and accounts continue to praise the positive socio-economic aspects of palm oil [1][2][3][59] and it very much has dramatically improved the economies of producing countries, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for up to 90% of palm oil exports [39], the palm oil industry is rife with human rights abuses including the illegal seizure of indigenous peoples’ lands, [16] labor trafficking, child labor, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and long-term abuse of temporary contracts. [21] [tweet this]

Palm oil farm workers, in many cases, end up like indentured servants, struggling to pay back debt.[17] Of course there also exist case studies of villages finding great prosperity from the introduction of plantations, though often new problems can arise from the cash influx like gambling and alcohol consumption. [18]

A concretely negative aspect of palm oil farming for humans, the environment and non-human animals alike are toxic pesticides. Pesticide usage isn’t monitored or controlled on plantations with around 25 different types being regularly employed. One of great concern is paraquat, the most toxic herbicide marketed over the past 60 years, which has been banned in 13 countries. [28][27][60] [tweet this] Agrochemicals have been shown to be more harmful to women than men, and women on palm oil plantations, as with many crops, are responsible for the mixing, handling and spraying of the pesticides.[27][60]

The Environmental Impact

This brings us into the environmental impact of palm oil production, which is irrevocably enmeshed with the impact on native species. The main elements of concern are the loss of forested land, leading to habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, and the extreme greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning peatland, which I’ll explain in a moment.

According to the World Watch Institute, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any other country besides China and the United States mainly due to palm oil production, [10] with the World Resources Institute ranking its output as 7th in the world. [34] While clear-cutting forested land in and of itself is environmentally destructive, the conversion of what’s called peatland into plantations is nothing short of devastating.

Peat is a water-logged, organic soil layer made up of dead and decaying plant matter that is rich with carbon. Peatlands are vital to the reduction of global warming as they absorb carbon and other greenhouse gasses, and Southeast Asia, where palm oil plantations are blossoming, contains three quarters of the world’s tropical peat-soil carbon. [36] If all of this peat-stored carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be equivalent to the carbon emissions from about nine years of global fossil fuel use. [35][32]

These vital ecosystems are actually not ideal for palm oil plantations, and ample grasslands and degraded areas exist whereupon plantations could be built,[19] however, companies can subsidize the cost of clearing peatland by selling the timber taken from the areas, and thus follow the most profitable route.[29]

To convert peatland into palm oil farms, it has to first be drained, which causes the peat to decompose, leading to heat-trapping emissions that can continue for decades. The peat eventually compacts, falling below the water table at which point it must again be drained. In addition, peat soil is often too acidic for oil palms and must have chemicals added for viability.

Possibly the most devastating practice for the environment and human and non-human animals alike is the intentional burning of peatland as an easy way to clear land for agriculture. These fires, which are some of the world’s largest fires on record, release hundreds of years’ worth of carbon and pollutants into the atmosphere and burn for weeks to months.

In dry years, the carbon emissions are astronomical. In 1997 fires in Indonesia released as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the United States had for that entire year. [38][37][32][tweet this] And when it comes to the environment, when you outdo the United Sates in your destruction, you know it’s bad. These fires can even become a public health hazard with the smoke and smog from fires in Indonesia in 2013 causing respiratory problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore [32].

The Impact on Animals

Of course these fires aren’t just destroying the forests, but also the living beings within them. Animals are burned alive while trying to flee and are often massacred by farm workers as they try to escape or purposefully driven back into the flames. [41] In the 1997 fires alone, Borneo’s orangutan population was reduced by one-third when close to 8,000 of these already endangered primates were burned to death or directly killed. [tweet this] Poachers also take advantage of these burns to kill fleeing animals like the Sumatran rhino, which as of 2008 had a population of fewer than 275 individuals.

The threat this destruction poses to our world’s biodiversity cannot be overstated. Southeast Asia is one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet. While comprising only 3% of the world’s surface, it contains around 20% of all plant, animal and marine species on the planet! It has 4 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as “a biogeographical region rich in biodiversity but under anthropogenic threat [meaning from human-caused pollution] ..and 70% of its original habitat must have been lost”[55]

The orangutan is certainly the face of palm oil’s devastation to non-human animals, with the critically endangered Sumatran population hovering around 7,300 as of 2004. But hundreds of other threatened species in Southeast Asia are also being horrifically impacted by palm oil production. The Sumatran tigers population, for example, was reported in 2008 to be a paltry 176-271 individuals left, with elephants and rhinos also at great risk. [22] [tweet this]

The “Sustainable” Palm Oil Movement 

With all of this destruction and violence, what’s being done about palm oil production’s long shadow? In 2004, the Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil was established with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. Composed of oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social NGOs, the round table has been largely criticized for not implementing its own standards. [20]

There are numerous loopholes in the RSPO’s certifications like plantations being “grandfathered” in and extremely subjective language for judging high value conservation forest versus forest green-lighted for clearing. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have called for objective parameters for sustainability, such as caps of greenhouse gas emissions, to no avail.[30]

Companies like Unilever, who are also RSPO members, are still sourcing their palm oil by unsustainable and ethically questionable methods, with plantation workers crashing the 2013 RSPO meeting with the call “don’t certify exploitation,”[20] and three case studies finding rampant human rights violations at RSPO certified plantations in Indonesia. [21]

Novi Hardianto, the Center for Orangutan Protection habitat program coordinator says that despite the RSPO, “Forests are still cleared and orangutans are continually killed…All criteria on sustainable palm oil and certification process are merely public lies.”[9]

Real Solutions?

So, is there hope? And what are we to do as vegans or potential vegans when we walk into a store to make a purchase? Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? And, after all of this, is palm oil even vegan?[tweet this]

Palm oil, in theory, can be made sustainably by using degraded lands and grasslands instead of forests and on mineral soils instead of peatland.[30][19] Increasing yield on existing plantations through tree breeding and better management, can reduce the need for using more land.[32] Governments can call for mandatory labeling of palm oil on ingredient labels, as currently there are over 200 palm oil derivative terms in use. [54].

Groups like Palm Oil Investigations believe that mandatory labeling will place companies in a position to source Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, which is different from the RSPO’s stamp, because consumers will be aware of their use of palm oil and be able to demand sustainable sources. They also argue that contacting brands and encouraging them to shift to actual sustainable palm oil is even preferable to full boycotts. The logic being that palm oil companies aren’t going out of business anytime soon and if no one demands truly sustainable options, they’ll keep producing with their current cheap and destructive methods. [56]

Of course there’s also the argument that such consumer-driven tactics are vain attempts to fix the underlying problem of capitalism with capitalistic efforts, and that an entire overhauling of our economic systems and food distribution politics is needed.

Now I’d like to try and put this into the greater vegan framework, if I may. With any agricultural production, there will be destruction. I have a whole video on whether vegans kill more animals than non-vegans due to the field mice, rabbits and other animals who are unintentionally killed during harvests, as well as a video on whether you can be 100 percent vegan and whether you’re vegan “enough,” all of which address this issue.

Should we be aware of and constantly striving to educate ourselves about where our food and other products come from and whom they impact? Absolutely. The danger comes when we are so overwhelmed that we throw up our hands and think it’s not worth it to even try.

Animal agriculture, as I demonstrated in an extensive video, accounts for 51% of global GHG emissions, a staggering 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction, and is itself a leading cause of species extinction and loss of biodiversity, not to mention the deaths of trillions of beings every year.[see linked video for citations]

I’m not here to play the numbers game or place the impact of palm oil beneath that of animal products. What I’m trying to say to those of you who are newly vegan or wanting to be vegan is: the efforts you are making are not discounted by those you are learning to make.

If we give up entirely because we aren’t perfect, what kind of impact are we having? Yes, we can always improve, which to me is the definition of veganism–doing the best with what we know and always working to educate ourselves and adjust our behavior accordingly.

So I would encourage you to look into this further for yourself. Check out the resources below. I’ve included links to lists of products known to contain palm oil [40] and lists of palm-oil free products [49][50][52] as well as a phone app you can use to scan products and check for pam oil [53] and more.

Luckily, palm oil is in processed foods, so if you eat a whole foods diet, chances are, you’re largely avoiding it already. But do know that vegan food items, toiletries, cleaning products and more, can contain palm oil. [see lists below]

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this. DO you consider palm oil vegan? Whether you’re vegan or non-vegan, do you avoid palm oil in your products and if so, why? What do you think the solution is to this industry? Let me know in the comments.

I hope that this has been helpful. The time it to produce this video clocks in at around 62 hours .   If you’d like to help support Bite Size Vegan so I can keep putting hours to bring you this educational resources, please check out the support page where you can give a one-time donation or receive perks and rewards for your support by joining the Nugget Army on Patreon.

Please share this post around to help others!

See ya next nugget!

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Citations and other resources

[1] Budidarsono, Suseno; Dewi, Sonya; Sofiyuddin, Muhammad; Rahmanulloh, Arif. “Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of Palm Oil Production” (PDF). World Agroforestry Centre.

[2] Norwana, Awang Ali Bema Dayang; Kunjappan, Rejani (2011). “The local impacts of oil palm expansion in Malaysia” (PDF). cifor.org. Center for International Forestry Research.

[3] Ismail, Saidi Isham (9 November 2012). “Palm oil transforms economic landscape“. Business Times [orginaly]

[4] “Palm oil cultivation for biofuel blocks return of displaced people in Colombia” (PDF) (Press release). Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. 5 November 2007.

[5] Colchester, Marcus; Jalong, Thomas; Meng Chuo, Wong (2 October 2012). “Free, Prior and Informed Consent in the Palm Oil Sector – Sarawak: IOI-Pelita and the community of Long Teran Kanan”. Forest Peoples Program.

[6] “”Losing Ground” – report on indigenous communities and oil palm development from LifeMosaic, Sawit Watch and Friends of the Earth”. Forest Peoples Programme. 28 February 2008.

[7]Man Kee Kam; Kok Tat Tan; Keat Teong Lee; Abdul Rahman Mohamed (9 September 2008). Malaysian Palm oil: Surviving the food versus fuel dispute for a sustainable future (Report). Renewable and Sustainable Energy Review. 

[8] Corley, R. H. V. (2009). “How much palm oil do we need?“. Environmental Science & Policy 12 (2): 134–838.

[9] Can “Sustainable” Palm Oil Slow Deforestation? 2009, World Watch Institute

[10] Global Palm Oil Demand Fueling Deforestation 2009,  World Watch Institute

[11] “Cruel Oil: How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest, & Wildlife” by the Center for Science in the Public Interest

[12] Hybrid oil palms bear fruit in western Kenya UN FAO

[13] Understanding the Impacts of Land-Use Policies on a Threatened Species: Is There a Future for the Bornean Orang-utan?Serge A. Wich, et. Al, PLUS One

[14] Carbon emissions from forest conversion by Kalimantan oil palm plantations, Kimberly M. Carlson, Lisa M. Curran, Gregory P. Asner, Alice McDonald Pittman, Simon N. Trigg & J. Marion Adeney

[15] Unilever to Use Only Sustainable Palm Oil in European Foods by End of Year Wall Street Journal (2104)

[16] UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Letter to Indonesian Ambassador

[17] The Impact of Oil Palm in Borneo By Rhett A. Butler

[18] Oil Palm Industry Takes Land, Promises Livelihood 2009, World Watch Institute

[19] Murniati (2002). “From imperata cylindrica grasslands to productive agroforestry“. Tropenbos International. 

[20] Workers Give Message to RSPO: Don’t Certify Abuse! By Eric Gottwald, International Labor Rights Forum

[21] Empty Assurances report by International Labor Rights Forum and Sawit Watch

[22] Palm Oil and Biodiversity WWF

[23] UNEP and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Sign New Agreement

[24] OIL PALM, SOYBEANS & CRITICAL HABITAT LOSS A Review Prepared for the WWF Forest Conversion Initiative

[25] Better Management Practices on Avoidance, Mitigation & Management of Human-Orangutan Conflict in and around Oil Palm Plantations by Eko Hari Yuwono (BOS Foundation), Purwo Susanto (WWF-Indonesia), Chairul Saleh (WWF-Indonesia), Noviar Andayani (UI/WCS-IP), Didik Prasetyo (UNAS), Sri Suci Utami Atmoko (UNAS/OC)

[26] DIET, NUTRITION AND THE PREVENTION OF CHRONIC DISEASES by Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation

[27]  Greasy palms – palm oil, the environment and big business by Friends of the Earth

[28] The oil for ape scandal: How palm oil is threatening orang-utan survival by Friends of the Earth The Ape Alliance, The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, The Orangutan Foundation (UK), The Sumatran Orangutan Society, 2005

[29] THE EFFECTS OF PALM OIL Orangutan Foundation International

[30] Scientists Statement on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Draft Revised Principles and Criteria for Public ConsultationOriginally submitted, November 2012 Updated to include more than 200 signers, January 2013, Union of Concerned Scientists

[31] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2013. FAOSTAT. Rome, Italy.

[32] Palm Oil and Global Warming by Union of Concerned Scientists

[33] How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? Emily B. Fitzherbert, Matthew J. Struebig, Alexandra Morel, Finn Danielsen, Carsten A. Brühl, Paul F. Donald and Ben Phalan

[34] World Resources Institute (WRI).  CAIT 2.0. Washington, DC.

[35] Climate regulation of fire emissions and deforestation in equatorial Asia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105(51):20350–20355. By van der Werf, G.R., J. Dempewolf, S.N. Trigg, J.T. Randerson, P.S. Kasibhatla, L. Giglio, D. Murdiyarso, W. Peters, D.C. Morton, G.J. Collatz, A.J. Dolman, and R.S. DeFries. 2008.

[36]  Global and regional importance of the tropical peatland carbon pool. Page, S.E., J.O. Rieley, and C.J. Banks. 2011. Global Change Biology 17(2):798–818.

[37] The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997 Page, S.E., F. Segert, J.O. Rieley, H.D.V. Boehm, A. Jaya, and S.H. Limin. 2002. . Nature 420(6911):61–65.

[38] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2013. Inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks: 1990–2011, EPA 430-R-13-001. Washington, DC

[39] Climate and Human-Related Drivers of Biodiversity Decline in Southeast Asia, UNU-IAS Policy Report 

[40] List of Products Containing Palm Oil Deforestation Education

[41] Hundreds of orangutans killed in north Indonesian forest fires deliberately started by palm oil firms By RICHARD SHEARS

[42] Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Unites States of America, by Lian Pin Koha,1, Jukka Miettinenb, Soo Chin Liewb, and Jaboury Ghazoula

[43] World Bank. Indonesia: Environment and Natural Resource Management in a Time of Transition. Washington, DC. 2001.

[44] IUCN Red List Analysis 2008

[45] Sumatran Tiger IUCN 2008

[46] Sumatran Orangutan IUCN

[47] Sumatran Rhino IUCN

[48] The Great Apes—The Road Ahead. A GLOBIO Perspective on the Impacts of Infrastructural Development on the Great Apes. Nellemann C, Newton A, eds. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Program. 2002

[49] List of Palm Oil Alternative Products BOS Australia 

[50] Palm Oil Free Product List by Ethical Consumer

[51] Rainforest Rescue on Palm Oil

[52] Palm Oil Free Product Features by Palm Oil Investigations (NOT ALL VEGAN so do check)

[53] App for Scanning Products for Palm Oil by Palm Oil Investigations [also lots of info on their site]

[54] A-Z list of Ingredient Names for Palm Oil  by Palm Oil Investigations and their Pocket Guide 

[55] Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Myers, N., Mittermeier, R., Mittermeier, C., da Fonseca, G., Kent, J., 2000. Nature, 403, 853–858.

[56] What’s the Solution by Palm Oil Investigates

[57] Legislation & voluntary commitments of Palm Oil Labelling

[58] Make Your Own Vegan Butter Recipe (Palm-Oil Free)

[59] The Economic Benefit of Palm Oil to Indonesia A Report by World Growth

[60] POISONED AND SILENCED : A Study of Pesticide Poisoning in the Plantations by Tenaganita and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific

12 thoughts on “Is Palm Oil Vegan?

    There is an easy solution for starters- stop eating processed foods. Who needs them anyway?
    Well maybe some folks in transition I suppose, but otherwise…. OK, I’m always suspicious of any food pre-packaged myself. Then we move on to the other stuff mentioned by Emily.

    Thanks for your comment :) And yes, avoiding processed foods is HUGE way to cut it out dietarily.

    Holy Crap Emily – what an incredibly well-done video! Looks like you have outdone yourself again.
    Thank you so much for doing this. It’s so important for people to have the facts about palm oil and the heartbreaking devastation the industry has been causing. The care you take encouraging new vegans is also appreciated. I share your stuff on my Facebook page, Virgin Vegans as often as possible and on my personal page too. Oh, and I’m thrilled that you are getting some return dollars from Amazon.com and V-dog, since I buy most of my dog and cat food and supplies through them. Keep up the great work!!

    Thank you so very much, Terry! I’m honored to be a source of information and education. That’s my entire goal with everything I do. Thank you for sharing as well–I so very much appreciate it, and for the affiliate usage :) Much love to you and keep spreading the message!

    Amazing videos. Thank you so much emily for all this effort ❤ no more palmoil from now on… also.. im on your website coz I’m looking for a list/an app where there is all the beauty products listed whether they’re vegan or not but only found barnivore from your alvohol vid.. i could research everysingle one but I’m in a huge decluttering and striving for minimalism phase right now and i can’t be bothered, but of course if i don’t find any list or so, I’ll google them all and get rid of that shit by donating it to my sis.

    I’m glad this was helpful! I’m hoping to do a video on beauty products in the future!

    Lauren B says:

    As a new vegan, this information you provided will help me make the right choices in my diet. In all things, I need to be a more concious eater. I have tried Follow Your Heart products which claim to be Rainforst Alliance certified for protection of habitat. I attempted to download the POI app to no avail but did find the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo version of the app. I will now pay even more attention to the products I buy! Thank you as always Emily!

    So glad that this was helpful! Thank you so much for sharing ;)

    Roseanne says:

    Thanks for a great cover of palm oil. For me, I’m at a point where it’s not too overwhelming to uncover products that are linked to harming animals like palm oil. In the begininng, it could have been a bit frustrating. This year I am more conscious and want to be more concious of products made with palm oil. If it explicilty says it uses palm oil, I avoid it. I want to do my best if I know this information. Resources like your videos want me to do better and are not overwhelming so thank you!

    I’ve been following your Youtube channel for some time, and this is my first time really visiting your website and to say I’ve been missing out is an understatement! This is an EXCELLENT video and article. Thank you for the work that you do, you help so many of us out here just hungry for vegan nuggets lol! We appreciate you so much Emily!

    Thank you so much!!! Welcome to the website ;D

    wow so much information, very helpful!

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