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Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of one of 3 species of palm trees (primarily Elaeis guineensis), which grows in tropical climates. The use of palm oil is very common in large scale commercial food production, and is becoming more common in biofuels. It is ubiquitous, found in half of processed foods on grocery store shelves. This is because it's currently the lowest-cost replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are now more-or-less banned due to their trans fat content (palm oil has no trans fat, but is high in saturated fats, which have a similar stiffness at room temperature). Additionally, it is touted as an alternative medicine, despite its claimed benefits being extremely dubious.
In 2012, 2.7 billion pounds of palm oil was imported into the United States. The United States and Europe collectively consume 13% of the world's palm oil, and its production make up a part of the gross domestic product of Indonesia and Malaysia. Overall, global consumption of palm oil has increased 4-fold in 20 years.
Palm oil is very controversial, since oil palms grow only in a tropical climate, it usually involves deforestation in tropical areas. Clearing the land for producing the oil also contributes directly to global warming as the land is usually cleared through burning, which releases CO2. Palm oil has also been linked to human rights violations (as people are forcibly relocated for the creation of more palm oil) and systemic corruption.
In Indonesia, palm oil has been linked to illegal logging and deforestation. One example of this is the conversion of 36,000 hectares of a national forest within the country into illegal palm fields,  which is of the 80,000 hectares left of the 1.8 million hectares originally set aside for the forest in the 1980's. Some of the areas used in the palm oil production have a high amount of biodiversity; as the biogeographical region of Indonesia and Malaysia in which plantations exists contain over 15,000 species of plants and animals, of which 642 are either threatened or have become recently extinct.
With the crunch for space in Indonesia and Malaysia, the production of palm oil is set to expand in Africa, with 4 million hectares already being allocated for palm oil production in Africa during the last 15 years..
In one 99-year lease, Herakles Farms had tried to acquire 73,000 acres for a palm oil plantation in Cameroon for $1 an acre. The company was trying to harvest and export 3 billion cubic meters of timber in the lease area. The action was later stopped by a government order in Cameroon.
Both the production of palm oil and the conversion of land into palm plantations are large sources of greenhouse gases.
In Indonesia, the areas being converted into palm oil production were forests growing on peat soils. Decomposing peat rots, sending large amounts of both carbon and methane into the atmosphere. The conversion of peat into plantations is expected to put several million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they decompose. Around 4,000 tons of CO2 will be released with each hectare of peat drained for palm oil production. The smoke from the fires is enough to cause serious health problems in countries around Indonesia, especially Singapore.
Palm fruit oil
Palm oil has been called a health substance by Dr. Oz, who claims that it will somehow stop heart disease and that when consumed goes "straight to liver and ignites metabolism", and that it prevents cancer through antioxidants. There has been some controversy about whether palm oil is healthy or not, but palm oil does have a very high concentration of saturated fat. One study in Costa Rica found that palm oil usage likely reduced the incidence of myocardial infarction. However, a 23-country study found that palm oil could be responsible for increasing ischemic heart disease and stroke.
Palm oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil, which is even higher in saturated fat. The former is derived from the tree's fruit; the latter is derived from the kernel (pit) of the fruit.
In 2019, the World Health Organization reported that the palm oil industry is using tactics similar to that of the alcohol and tobacco industries by influencing scientific research on the health effects of palm oil.
So, is there any upside?
Oil palm plantations yield roughly 10 times as much oil per year per hectare as soybean plantations do. Canola is about 3 times more land-efficient for oil production than soybeans, which still leaves oil palms ~3 times as land-efficient as canola. Of course, canola and soy don't have to be grown in the tropics, and there are other uses for the non-oily parts of the soy plant.
- The Cost of the Biofuel Boom: Destroying Indonesia’s Forests
- "Palm Oil", Rainforest action network.
- Palm Oil In The Food Supply: What You Should Know The Cost of the Biofuel Boom: Destroying Indonesia’s Forests
- Profitability and Sustainability in Palm Oil Production: Analysis of Incremental Financial Costs and Benefits of RSPO Compliance, p.4
- Saturated fats congeal when they get cold. c.f. Why is Palm Oil Bad for You?, The Straight Dope, 10-Feb-1989
- Palm oil introduction Palm Oil: Impacts
- Indonesia’s Corruption Legacy Clouds a Forest Protection Plan
- "Palming Off a National Forest", World Wildlife Foundation, page 3
- Ibid, page 5
- Brooks, T. M., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., Da Fonseca, G. A. B., Rylands, A. B., Konstant, W. R., Flick, P., Pilgrim, J., Oldfield, S., Magin, G. and Hilton-Taylor, C. (2002), Habitat Loss and Extinction in the Hotspots of Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, 16: 909–923. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00530.x
- "Palm oil risk to Africa as prospectors eye swaths of land", The Guardian, 15 January 2015
- Herakles Exposed: The Truth Behind Herakles Farms False Promises in Cameroon, Greenpeace/The Oakland Institute
-  A statement from the company.
- In secret tapes, palm oil execs disclose corruption, brutality: Global Witness, an environmental and human rights organization, sent undercover investigators to get the scoop by Desmond Butler (October 9, 2021) The Washington Post.
-  "Bog barons: Indonesia's carbon catastrophe", The Telegraph
-  Global Palm Oil Demand Fueling Deforestation
-  Palm Oil Production Poses Problems for the Climate
-  "I Don't Buy What Dr. Oz Is Trying to Sell", Huffington Post
-  Destroying the environment can add years to your life!
- Myocardial Infarction in Costa Rica by Edmond K. Kabagambe et al. J. Nutr. November 1, 2005 vol. 135 no. 11 2674-2679
- Multi-Country analysis of palm oil consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality for countries at different stages of economic development: 1980-1997 by Brian K. Chen et al. Global Health 2011; 7: 45. doi:10.1186/1744-8603-7-45
- WHO study likens palm oil lobbying to tobacco and alcohol industries by Tom Miles (January 8, 2019 / 10:43 AM) Reuters.
- An Investor’s Guide to Palm Oil, article from c. 2016
- Rapeseed and Canola for Biodiesel Production, Extension, 3-April-2019