The EU is phasing out palm oil biofuels because of concerns over deforestation. Research also suggests that making biodiesel from palms grown on newly cleared land increases greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them. Undeterred, Indonesia is working to increase the palm component in its biodiesel, which it markets as "Green Diesel," and to develop other palm-based biofuels.
Today there are enough oil palm plantations worldwide to cover an area larger than the state of Kansas, and the industry is still growing. It is concentrated in Asia, but plantations are spreading in Africa and Latin America. Palm oil is everywhere today: in food, soap, lipstick, even newspaper ink. It's been called the world's most hated crop because of its association with deforestation in Southeast Asia. Between 2018 and 2020, almost 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of rainforest were cleared in just three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, leading to Indigenous communities losing their land. But despite boycott campaigns, the world uses more palm oil than any other vegetable oil - over 73 million tons in 2020. That's because palm oil is cheap. The plant that makes it, the African oil palm, can produce up to 10 times more oil per hectare than soya.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, tropical forest clearing for oil palm plantations threatens nearly 200 at-risk species, including orangutans, tigers and African forest elephants. However, the IUCN and many other advocates argue that shifting away from palm oil is not the answer. Since oil palm is so productive, they contend, switching to other oil crops could cause even more harm because it would require more land to cultivate substitutes.
Instead, there are more just and sustainable ways to make palm oil. Studies show that small-scale agroforestry techniques, like those historically practiced in Africa and among Afro-descendant communities in South America, offer effective ways to produce palm oil while protecting the environment.