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The Problem With Palm Oil

Updated: May 15

Palm oil is present in many products we eat and use daily - it may be present in as much as fifty percent of packaged foods and products, from foods and vitamins to cleaning products, beauty care, and biofuel. It sneaks into your pantries and cabinets, hidden under many different ingredient names you probably don’t recognize.    

Orangutan behind bars

Here are a few examples of ingredients made from palm oil (not a complete list):

What is palm oil, and where is it grown?

From The Great Projects, "Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is derived from the fleshy fruit of the oil palm tree and is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. Surprisingly, palm oil is more common than you think, as it can be found in half of all supermarket products, including many processed foods, toiletries, cosmetics, and candles. We'll talk about this in more detail as we go on…

You are more than likely to find palm oil plantations across continents such as Africa, Asia, and the Americas, but the two main areas with the highest production are Indonesia and Malaysia. The two together account for 85% of the world's palm oil production alone, and according to, oil palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth's surface."

Palm oil is often harvested via child and slave labor. No surprise here, but Nestle (vying for the world's worst corporation award, human rights violations expert, and owner of vitamin companies such as Garden of Life, Vital Proteins, Orgain, and Pure Encapsulations) is, of course, involved:

"Advocates for the workers charge that migrants working on FGV farms are forced into debt bondage with the farm, have their passports confiscated, and are prevented from leaving the property. The organizations say some farms may use child labor. The allegations are in line with reports from the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Malaysia. Roughly 20,000 migrants are believed to work on FGV plantations in Malaysia."

No matter what a company claims about ethics or doing the right thing, if it is made using palm oil from those regions, it is virtually impossible to be produced ethically.

Child labor is still being extensively used:

Amnesty International documented evidence of the involvement of children in hazardous work on plantations owned by two Wilmar subsidiaries (PT Daya Labuhan Indah, PT Milano) and three Wilmar suppliers (ABM, SPMN, and PT Hamparan). Workers employed by these companies told researchers that they had seen children working on the plantation, helping their parents. Because of a fear that they could lose their jobs if they spoke about this issue, parents were nervous about being interviewed about child labor. Researchers, however, interviewed five children who help their fathers and also interviewed their fathers. They interviewed five other fathers, who are harvesters, who described how their children work with them on plantations. Some children started working from the age of eight years onwards, and all were below fifteen years of age. Most of the children help their parents in the afternoons, after attending school, and on weekends and holidays. However, some children have dropped out of school and work for all or most of the day. Children carry heavy loads, as they have to carry sacks of loose fruits and some transport wheelbarrows full of heavy palm fruit bunches over uneven terrain and narrow bridges. They run the risk of injuries from repetitive movements, carrying heavy loads, and from working in an environment where they are exposed to chemicals.”

Child slavery

No product made with child labor can ever be considered ethical, and due to the lack of transparency in the palm oil supply chain, companies have no way of being 100% sure that child labor is not used.

"Palm oil companies often solicit the aid of labor contractors who are responsible for recruiting low-wage workers for their plantations. As a result of a booming need for unskilled workers, the practice of labor recruitment in the palm oil industry has become entangled in serious allegations citing human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, as well as child labor. The Arakan Project, which tracks migration through the Bay of Bengal, estimates roughly 50,000 individuals led by human smugglers have suffered the perilous and often illicit journey to Malaysia in the past two years. It is precisely these atrocities that have earned oil palm plantations charges of “modern-day slavery”— and appropriately so. Mohammad Rubel’s report to the WSJ, which details his migration from Bangladesh to Malaysia, exposes the inhumane conditions, reminiscent of those on the horrific 18th century Middle Passage, that he and other passengers endured for several weeks. The following is an excerpt of his account:“… armed men operating the boat rationed food and water so the packed-in migrants would make fewer trips to the toilet and beat them when they asked for more. The heat and stench were overpowering, he said, and he saw dozens die. At one point, he said, he watched as the traffickers threw migrants’ bodies into the sea after slitting open their abdomens so they would sink. After three weeks, the boat reached southern Thailand. Mr. Rubel said he and hundreds of others were put in crowded camps, sleeping entangled in one another’s limbs behind coils of barbed wire.”As a survivor of the voyage, Rubel was subsequently funneled to Jempol, Malaysia, where he found work as an employee of one of the labor contractors at a plantation owned by Felda Global Ventures, the largest palm oil producer in Malaysia. Appallingly, Felda is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international organization established to promote a sustainable standard for palm oil production. Since arriving in December, Rubel has not been compensated for his seven-day-a-week toil, sawing off oil palm fruit bunches to be processed at the local mill."

That's just one of thousands of similar stories.

Animals suffer, as well. Most palm oil is sourced from the orangutan's native habitats:

"The men came at Hope and her baby with spears and guns. But she would not leave. There was no place for her to go. When the air-gun pellets pierced Hope’s eyes, blinding her, she felt her way up the tree trunks, auburn-furred fingers searching out tropical fruit for sustenance. By the end, Hope’s torso was slashed with deep lacerations. Multiple bones were broken. Seventy-four pellets were lodged in her body. Her months-old baby had been ripped away."

Hope, who was named at a rehabilitation center, is a Sumatran orangutan — a critically endangered animal that scientists warn could be the first major great ape species to become extinct. As jungles and swamps are cleared for palm oil plantations, orangutans, whose name means “people of the forest” in Malay, are losing the very habitat that gives them their identity.

Vets tending to an orangutan

Vet's tending to Hope.

From 1999 to 2015, the orangutan population on the island of Borneo declined by more than 100,000, researchers reported in the journal Current Biology.

The unluckiest orangutans die in the fires set to clear the land. The more fortunate are marooned on small islands of trees among oil palms. Desperate for food, they stray into areas inhabited by humans, raiding crops and provoking villagers to act.

“They eat a couple of fruit, and they get shot,” Singleton says. “And nothing’s done about it. There’s no law enforcement.”

When Hope showed up earlier this year on the outskirts of Bunga Tanjung village in Aceh province on Sumatra, some of the earth was still smoldering. Neat rows of oil palm seedlings stretched towards the horizon. Confined to a narrow strip of secondary forest, Hope gobbled fruit from village orchards to survive. The majority of Bunga Tanjung’s residents are not from Aceh but are poor, economic migrants from other parts of Indonesia, lured by the demand for palm oil."

A comprehensive study pooled data collected by 38 different research organizations. When Maria Voigt, the study's lead co-author and a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, crunched the numbers, she found just under 150,000 Borneo orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015—roughly half the population.

Greed seems to have no boundaries. There is no ethical way to create palm oil in an area that requires the habitat of orangutans to be destroyed like this. Companies can put out all the symbols, greenwashing, and claims they want, but it is simply not possible.

The environment is not spared.

"Palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation worldwide, and while the majority of plantations are cultivated on peatlands, huge areas of rainforest are being bulldozed and torched to make room for more plantations. It is estimated that worldwide, an area of rainforest the size of 300 football pitches is cleared every hour. In light of this, Indonesia and Malaysia alone could potentially see the complete eradication of their rainforests in just a matter of years. Regardless of this fact, Indonesia has already announced plans to double its palm oil production by the year 2020 – according to the Union of Concerned Scientists."


"...according to the report "The Last Stand of the Orangutan- State of Emergency: Illegal Logging,  Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia's National Parks" (published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Program UNEP), palm oil plantations are currently the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia: "A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022, the lowland forest much sooner."

Today, rainforest area, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields, is being destroyed every hour. This gives rise to numerous problems for the climate, environment, and people living in the forest:

  • CO2 emissions – In preparing rainforest land for a palm oil plantation, the most valuable trees are cut down and removed first. What remains is cleared by burning. If the forest was on peatland – as is the case in much of Indonesia – the land is drained. Peatlands store vast quantities of carbon, and the conversion of a single hectare of Indonesian peatland rainforest releases up to 6,000 tons of CO2. Tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change (see 4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC).

  • Loss of biodiversity – Indonesia's rainforests and peatlands are among the world's most species-rich environments and home to numerous endangered plants and animals, such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Bornean rhinos. The destruction of natural habitats deprives the animals of the basis for their existence, causing an irreversible loss of biological diversity."

There is simply no way to produce palm oil in Asia in an environmentally friendly way. Many companies like to tout that their palm oil or ingredients made from palm oil are certified by the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). The RSPO claims to be an organization working to make palm oil more environmentally and sustainably friendly. It is a complete and utter scam. This group is nothing more than an industry greenwashing group.

"A new investigation of palm oil plantations, companies, and auditors has found that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is failing to deliver on its promise, writes Chris Lang. Widespread fraud, collusion between auditors and companies, conflicts of interest, and a flawed complaints system mean that RSPO-certified palm oil may be destructively and illegally produced."

There's no mention of the fires that engulf Indonesia every dry season. There are no interviews with workers forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery.

The new report by EIA and Grassroots finds that "Auditing firms are fundamentally failing to identify and mitigate unsustainable practices by oil palm firms.

"Not only are they conducting woefully substandard assessments, but the evidence indicates that, in some cases, they are colluding with plantation companies to disguise violations of the RSPO Standard. The systems put in place to monitor these auditors have utterly failed."

The report is titled, 'Who watches the watchmen? Auditors and the breakdown of oversight in the RSPO', and includes a series of case studies that highlight the failures in the RSPO system. The case studies identify the following problems:

  • Auditors providing fraudulent assessments that cover up violations of the RSPO standard and procedures.

  • Auditors fail to identify indigenous land rights claims.

  • Auditors fail to identify social conflicts arising due to the abuse of community rights.

  • Auditors failing to identify serious labor abuses

  • Auditors fail to identify the risks of trafficked labor being used in

  • plantations.

  • Ambiguity over legal compliance.

  • Auditors provide methodologically and substantively flawed HCV (High Conservation Value) assessments that will enable the destruction of HCVs.

  • Certification Bodies display a weak understanding of the standard.

  • Certification Bodies provide suspect assessments in response to legitimate complaints from NGOs that fail to address the substance of the complaints.

  • Conflicts of interest due to links between certification bodies and plantation companies.

The researchers found orangutan populations declined at similar rates between RSPO-certified and non-certified plantations between 2009 and 2014.

"We found no significant evidence to suggest RSPO was better in achieving any of those metrics compared to non-certified plantations," Ms Morgans said.

Greenpeace exposed massive rainforest destruction in Papua, allegedly caused by palm oil companies that are subsidiaries of a current RSPO member. Buying from them were big multinationals, including Unilever, Nestle (shocker), Pepsico and Mars.

More than 100 organizations from five continents signed on to this open statement from Friends of the Earth International and the World Rainforest Movement, denouncing the failure of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to eliminate the violence and destruction that oil palm plantations cause in the territories where they are established.

They also know that the key to the corporate success story of producing “cheap” palm oil is a particular model of industrial production with ever-increasing efficiency and productivity, which in turn is achieved by:

  • Planting on a large scale and in monoculture, frequently through the conversion of tropical biodiverse forests;

  • Using “high-yielding” seedlings that demand large amounts of agro toxins and abundant water;

  • Squeezing cheap labor out of the smallest possible workforce, employed in precarious conditions so that company costs are cut to a minimum;

  • Making significant up-front money from the tropical timber extracted from concessions, which is then used to finance plantation development or increase corporate profits;

  • Grabbing land violently from local communities or by means of other arrangements with governments (including favorable tax regimes) to access land at the lowest possible cost.

Those living on the fertile land on which corporations choose to apply their industrial palm oil production model pay a very high price. Violence is intrinsic to this model:

  • Violence and repression when communities resist the corporate take-over of their land because they know that once their land is turned into monoculture oil palm plantations, their livelihoods will be destroyed, and their land and forests invaded. In countless cases, deforestation caused by the expansion of this industry has displaced communities or destroyed community livelihoods where companies violate customary rights and take control of community land.

  • Sexual violence and harassment against women in and around the plantations often stay invisible because women find themselves without the possibility to demand that the perpetrators be prosecuted.

  • Child labor and precarious working conditions go hand-in-hand with the violation of workers’ rights; working conditions can even be so bad as to amount to contemporary forms of slavery. This exploitative model of work grants companies more economic profits while allowing palm oil to remain a cheap product. That is why neither they nor their shareholders do anything to stop it.

  • Exposure of workers, entire communities and forests, rivers, water springs, agricultural land, and soils to the excessive application of agrotoxins.

  • Depriving communities surrounded by industrial oil palm plantations of their food sovereignty when industrial oil palm plantations occupy land that communities need to grow food crops.

How can we make things better? has released an app that allows one to scan an item barcode and easily check if it contains palm oil or palm oil derivatives.

The next step is to call on stores and businesses you frequent and ask them to stop carrying products made with palm oil. If a business claims to care, supports ethical causes and often is promoting ways to improve the environment, they should have no problem getting on board with getting rid of palm oil. If they are not working to replace products containing palm oil with palm oil-free versions, then you know they really do not care, and they only care about looking good, not actually doing something.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of vitamins and supplements contain ingredients made from palm oil. We are proud to be working diligently on our plan to go 100% palm oil-free.

Palm oil free supplements

When you see that symbol, you know that 100% of the ingredients, including fillers and binders, are completely free of any ingredients made from palm oil or its derivatives. It is a huge project to find all the products we need and make sure they are palm-free.

While we are not quite 100% there yet (about 85-90%), we are pushing hard to get there. Over the past couple of years, we have been working behind the scenes to help supplement companies who care to transition to palm oil-free raw materials and ingredients.  We are incredibly proud of how many products on the market are now palm oil free because of our hard work, and we have no plans to stop!

Martin Luther King Jr. Quote


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