Orangutan in Borneo

Ethical aspects of fat: exploring the effects of palm oil use

Should the use of palm oil be banned worldwide?

Palm oil accounts for two-thirds of internationally traded vegetable oils. Worldwide, over 54 million tonnes of palm oil were produced in 2013.

It is used in a plethora of food and cleaning products. You’ll find it in peanut butter, ready-made pizzas and shampoos. It’s used because it’s cheap to produce and has a longer shelf-life than other oils.

The downside to all this cheap oil is that millions of hectares of rainforest have been converted to palm oil plantations, posing a major threat to biodiversity. It’s not just charismatic animals like orangutans that lose their habitats. Each 1,000 hectares of rainforest is estimated to be home to 750 tree species, 400 bird species and 150 butterfly species. In the EU, new food labelling regulations introduced in 2014 mean that manufacturers can no longer hide the presence of palm oil in their products under the generic term ‘vegetable oils’.

Two major producers of palm oil, including the world’s largest, have committed to zero deforestation policies, while manufacturers are pledging to use sustainable palm oil or stop using it altogether under voluntary agreements.


Pros Cons
Protection of rainforest biodiversity and species of unknown medical significance. Possible breakdown of local economies based on palm oil.
Protection of trees as important carbon sinks. Growing other less efficient oil crops takes up even more land.


Lead image:

Rainforest Action Network/Flickr CC BY NC ND


Questions for discussion

  • Can you think of other pros and cons?
  • Are these actions enough, or should palm oil production be banned altogether?

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Fat’ in December 2015.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development