Palm Oil: What you need to know

palm oil fruit

The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an ancient tropical plant from the West African tropical rainforest region. It is still being cultivated there as well as across the tropics. Indonesia and Malaysia account for about 89 percent of global production (2014. Stanford Social Innovation Report), with the world’s largest palm oil users being China, India, and Europe. Other key palm oil producing countries include Nigeria, Thailand, Colombia, Ecuador and other African economies.

Today, it’s the most produced and traded vegetable oil in the world. Products from the palm such as crude palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm kernel meal and all their derivatives are inexpensive and extremely versatile. Aside from widespread use as a healthier choice of cooking oil it’s found in more than 50 percent of consumer products today used for – food, cosmetics, animal feed, soaps/lotions, pharmaceuticals, biofuel and chemical industries. About 80 percent of world production is consumed in the form of food, however the demand for non-food use is growing rapidly and feeding the need for expansion.

The boom in palm oil growth has been absolutely breathtaking. Below, are 3 statistics that demonstrate the growth trend.

  • Global land area used for palm oil production jumped from 15 million acres (1990) to a staggering 40+ million acres (2011) (Fact Sheet. The Union of Concerned Scientists)
  • In just 4 years, global production has grown from 48.84 million metric tons (2010) to 62.79 million metric tons (2014) (2015 USDA World Markets and Trade Report).
  • Riau Province, in Indonesia has been a focal point for expansion. Land use for palm oil production has skyrocketed from only 7,000 hectares in 1982 to 1,567,054 in 2007, occupying the large share in Indonesia (2013. The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia: A Transnational Perspective)

Global challenges of deforestation and drainage of tropical peatland for rapid palm plantation expansion:

  • Biodiversity loss on a mass scale
  • Extreme carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
  • Loss of climate regulation
  • Social conflict
  • Human rights violations
  • Loss of medicines

The future outlook shows us nothing more than continued growth in the palm industry. There is much debate about how to deal with this challenge. Do we avoid products with palm oil or focus on creating sustainable practices using smart resource management?

Can we just avoid palm oil?

The reality is, it’s very difficult to avoid and is becoming less of a reality everyday as use of the versatile palm continues to expand into more consumer goods. In addition, it goes by many different names making it near impossible for the everyday consumer to keep track. It’s not as simple as avoiding a specific product or brand. It’s ingredient based and can be in your pizza dough, soap or ice cream. There are alternate options but they come with their own, even worse, challenges.

Aside from being the most inexpensive vegetable oil it helps to understand, when the goal is to reduce expansion, that palm oil actually yields 5-8 times more per hectare than any other alternative. Since vegetable oil isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, maximizing the highest yield possible per hectare seems critical for land conservation. They also have the lowest input requirements for fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides per ton of production. For example, soybean oil requires 6 times more energy, 7 times more nitrogen, and 14 times more pesticides per ton produced than palm oiI. This means emissions by pesticides to soil and water are very low for palm oil. Overall, compared with the major oilseed crops (ie. soybean, rapeseed and sunflower), oil palm is considered most environmentally friendly with respect to land use efficiency and productivity, energy efficiency and inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and pollution potential (Teoh Cheng Hai. Selling the GreenPalm Oil Advantage?)

So, what can we do?

The best thing we can do at this time is consciously buy products produced with sustainable palm oil. In some cases, such as buying soap, if an alternate like soy or rapeseed is not used then avoiding palm completely could be OK. However, as mentioned earlier, palm yields the most per hectare which means it requires less land. Using alternates like soy and rapeseed will destroy more high valued rainforest land. More major companies are making commitments to zero deforestation production and supply chains. Supporting the sustainable production of palm oil is currently the best approach to managing the booming demand until alternate solutions are presented. In recent news scientists have revealed a potential palm oil alternative which is yeast. We’ll keep any eye on developments and hope for progress.

You can also download our free guide to living a rainforest friendly lifestyle which has some product tips. You can grab a free copy right here.

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