Oil palms are native to Africa. For thousands of years, people there have pressed the trees’ red fruits to squeeze out their oil. In the late 19th century, production of an inexpensive butter substitute called margarine took off in Europe and North America. Palm oil proved to be an excellent ingredient for this product because it stays semisolid at room temperature but melts in your mouth. As demand for palm oil grew, manufacturers transplanted African oil palms to Southeast Asia. They established large plantations, or cultivated areas, with oil palms as far as the eye could see.
Since then, manufacturers have continued to find new uses for palm oil. It’s now the top-selling vegetable oil in the world. But in the areas where it’s made, palm oil production has had complex and sometimes devastating effects. To make way for oil palm plantations, tens of millions of acres of tropical forest have been cut down or burned.
Much of this deforestation has taken place in the nations of Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil. It has resulted in habitat loss for endangered species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran tigers. Clearing forests also contributes to climate change. That’s because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their tissues. When forests are cut down, the trees and the tropical soils where they grow release this heat-trapping greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, causing Earth’s average global temperature to rise.