Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil. It comes from the fruit of the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis).
Native to West Africa, oil palm has been traditionally grown as a subsistence crop in small-scale farming systems for thousands of years.
Oil palms were introduced to Southeast Asia by European traders in the early 19th century, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the climate is more humid, and therefore even more conducive to oil palm growth. Palm oil trees can grow to over 20 metres tall, and unlike some other vegetable oil crops, the fruit can be harvested all year round.
Large-scale production on monocultural oil palm plantations has become highly prevalent over the last forty years in response to ever-increasing global demand.
Why is palm oil so widely used?
Palm oil is very versatile and widely used in food products, detergents, and cosmetics. At least 50% of the packaged products sold in most supermarkets contain palm oil. It is also increasingly used as a biofuel.
Palm oil has the potential to be a more economically viable and sustainable vegetable oil than the alternatives:
- using up to 10 times less land than other major vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower;
- producing higher yields per hectare – one hectare of land can produce 4,000kg palm oil, or 500kg of kernel oil;
- requiring less fertiliser, fewer pesticides, and storing more carbon than other oil crops.
Despite these potential benefits, business as usual is not sustainable. Industry expansion cannot continue if this is at the cost of Indonesia’s natural ecosystems, as well as forests in many other countries throughout the tropics.
Problems associated with irresponsible palm oil production:
- There are many negative environmental impacts associated with unsustainable palm oil production. Oil palms are typically grown in regions that contain high levels of biodiversity (Indonesia and Malaysia together produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil) on land that was previously occupied by tropical rainforests and peatlands.
- This land is often cleared illegally, destroying some of the world’s most diverse habitats and increasing pollution and carbon emissions through slash and burn agriculture.
- In many areas, local communities are not respected and employees are treated poorly.
Why can’t we just stop buying palm oil?
- Over 50 million tonnes of palm oil is consumed every year, around one third of all vegetable oil.
- If we stop buying palm oil, palm oil producing companies will sell palm oil to markets that do not value the environment.
- Other vegetable oils will be grown in its place which require up to ten times more land to produce the same amount of oil, increasing deforestation.
- Palm oil production provides an income for 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, taking them out of poverty, and accounts for 4.5% of Indonesian GDP.
What is sustainable palm oil?
To develop a sustainable palm oil industry, companies must:
- Stop clearing rainforests and developing on peatlands.
- Manage their plantations responsibly according to best practice guidelines.
- Trace their supply of palm oil back to the refinery and plantations where it was farmed.
- Establish safe and fair working conditions for employees.
- Properly consult local communities on new developments.
What you can do to support sustainable palm oil:
- Explore more about the issue through the Guardian’s excellent interactive: from rainforest to your cupboard – the story of palm oil.
- Support companies that have made commitments to using only certified sustainable palm oil.
- Don’t just avoid the problem by boycotting palm oil altogether, instead be part of the solution by supporting Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) as a minimum. Look out for products bearing the RSPO Trademark, which show that they contain a minimum 95% of CSPO.
- Ask retailers to source certified sustainable palm oil, not only in their own-brand products but in all the products they sell. You can do this by contacting their customer service departments.
- Ask manufacturers to source certified sustainable palm oil.
- Lobby your parliamentary or government representative to improve national legislation.
- Join or support organisations that are actively campaigning for better standards.
- Increase your own awareness of what is in your food.
- See how some of the most famous products you buy have performed on Oxfam’s Behind the Brands ethical scorecard.
- Read through the Union for Concerned Scientists’ palm oil scorecard, and their global warming factsheet.
- Learn more about the work of other organisations promoting better management practices in the Palm Oil Innovation Group.
- Visit SPOTT’s sustainable shopping page to learn more.
Last updated: 25/08/2016