The likelihood that you use products with palm oil is pretty high: the ingredient is in half of all products on supermarket shelves, in everything from ice cream and lipstick to shampoo and laundry detergent. Every year, the world produces some 70 million tonnes of palm oil, and it primarily comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil production has driven deforestation.

A new map called PalmWatch from nonprofit Inclusive Development International makes that deforestation visible—and links it to the brands that use that palm oil in their products. The map shows deforestation on a scale from light yellow, for a small amount of tree cover loss, to a deep red, as that tree cover loss increases. Indonesia and Malaysia are covered in orange and deep red dots (as are some areas in Africa and South America along the Equator).

[Image: PalmWatch]

Clicking one of those shaded areas pulls up details about the mills that produce palm oil, a deforestation score for that mill calculated from historic tree cover loss data, and a list of the consumer brands that source from that mill. On a deep red area of the map near Brunei, for example, the mill Biogrow City Plantations is linked to Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and others. (The chart shows brand sourcing from 2017 to 2021; that information comes from public disclosures from consumer brands). Users can see data by brand.

The data about what brands use which mills is clear. The data on the deforestation linked to each mill is a little less clear. PalmWatch estimates an area of forest around each mill that the mill might have access to, where they’re likely sourcing their palm fruit from. It starts by looking at a 50-kilometer radius around a mill—a standard distance, researchers say, for how far agricultural products like palm fruit travel to a processing mill. Then the researchers create a shape around each mill within that distance based on the road network and the estimated plantations near it.

Using data on tree cover loss from 2000 to 2022, researchers then looked at the specific deforestation within that allotted shape. A layer icon on the map allows users to scroll through the years of deforestation. PalmWatch was built in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute.

Overall, the amount of deforestation from palm oil has actually dropped from record highs. A 2019 study found that palm oil deforestation in Indonesia peaked in 2009, when palm oil was responsible for nearly 40% of the country’s deforestation; it then dropped to less than 15% in 2016. (Palm oil’s history of environmental devastation has spurred investments in alternatives, from precision fermentation versions to palm-free ingredients that mimic the oil’s properties.)

Deforestation from palm oil has been ticking up though: In 2023, deforestation from palm oil in Indonesia increased for the second year in a row; about 74,100 acres of forest were cleared that year to make way for palm oil plantations, up from 54,400 acres in 2022. The map also highlights the hypocrisies, its creators say, of deforestation commitments or high ESG investment ratings from brands that are still contributing to palm oil deforestation.

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