What you need to know about palm oil — in 5 charts

Workers at a smallholder oil palm plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia sort and weigh fresh fruit bunches before transferring them to an oil palm middleman. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Workers at a smallholder oil palm plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia sort and weigh fresh fruit bunches before transferring them to an oil palm middleman. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

It has all the makings of a supermarket tabloid headline: “The secret ingredient lurking in your pantry, freezer and medicine cabinet.” Although many consumers have never heard of palm oil, it’s an ingredient in about half the products on supermarket shelves. About 80 percent is used in processed foods, from ice cream to peanut butter to margarine; the rest goes into items like personal care and cleaning products or is used as biofuel.

This ubiquitous product has consistently been linked to the cutting and clearing of tropical forests, inspiring many organizations and individuals to call for a palm oil boycott. However, solving the problem is not that simple. Here’s what you need to know.

1.  Palm oil consumption is surging.

consumption-of-palm-oil-worldwide-2005-2016

In recent decades, the global vegetable oil industry has skyrocketed as processed foods have become the norm in refrigerators and restaurants around the globe. In addition to this increasing demand, which has more than doubled in the last 10 years, growth of palm oil in particular has been fueled by factors ranging from the expansion of industrial logging in Indonesia (which cleared the way for new plantations of oil palm, the tree that produces palm oil) to government policies encouraging its expansion to bans on trans fats in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe (which led food companies to seek out alternatives).

The biggest consumers? India, Indonesia, China and the E.U. (Despite palm oil’s omnipresence, the United States only represents about 2% of the global palm oil market. However, given that many multinational corporations that use palm oil are based in the U.S., it’s an influential market.)

2.  Most of it is grown in Southeast Asia.

top-palm-oil-producing-countries-in-2015-horizontal-chart

About 86% of the world’s palm oil is currently grown in Indonesia or Malaysia, where 4.5 million people earn their living from the industry. Millions more — as many as 25 million people in Indonesia alone — depend indirectly on the profits from palm oil production for their livelihoods.

As demand for palm oil grows, production is expanding in other tropical regions as well, particularly in South America and Africa.

3.  Palm oil production has led to major forest loss — which has greater consequences.

total-forest-cover-indonesia-1990-2010

Of the 18 million hectares (44 million acres) that have been planted with oil palm worldwide — a territory the same size as Cambodia — an estimated 60 percent of this land was directly converted from primary forest. As the chart above shows, the amount of total forest cover lost between 1990 and 2010 in Indonesia alone is equivalent to a forest the size of Uganda.

The massive tree farms that result may look green from the air, but on the ground they’re only distantly related to the forests that once blanketed these lands. The burning and conversion of forests — and, even worse, carbon-rich peatlands whose soils store even more carbon than forests — to oil palm not only contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change, it also has more immediate impacts on the lives of nearby people and animals in the form of deadly air pollution and habitat loss for disappearing species such as orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos. Research has found that only a small fraction of forest biodiversity can survive after the land is converted to oil palm.

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4.  But palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oil crop to grow.

area-needed-to-produce-1-metric-ton-of-vegetable-oil

Oil palm cultivation produces more metric tons of oil per hectare than any other vegetable oil. The tree can grow on a range of soils, requires relatively little in terms of fertilizers and pesticides, and bears fruit year-round, making it an attractive crop for smallholders. Currently oil palm is grown on about 7 percent of land devoted to vegetable oil crops, yet palm oil makes up 39 percent of all vegetable oil production.

The crop’s efficiency underscores why boycotting all palm oil will not stop deforestation. If demand for all palm oil halted tomorrow, it would be replaced with demand for other vegetable oils, whose cultivation could actually increase the amount of land needed to produce the same amount of oil, destroying more forests and releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

5.  There is a growing demand for sustainable palm oil — and production is beginning to reflect that.

land-under-certified-sustainable-palm-oil-production

As the graph above shows, the amount of land being cultivated for sustainable palm oil has grown dramatically as businesses, producers and countries have become more aware of the toll of the industry’s destruction. Much of this change has been facilitated by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international forum that aims to eventually transform the entire palm oil industry to one that leaves primary forests standing, avoids community conflict, minimizes land use and degradation and pursues sustainability throughout the entire supply chain.

Reforming the growth and sale of such a large commodity is no easy task, especially given how difficult it can be to trace original palm oil sources for large companies that source from many locations. And so far, the RSPO’s success has been limited, in part because achieving RSPO certification for palm oil supplies is currently voluntary, not compulsory. Yet in just over 10 years of existence, the RSPO has already certified 17 percent of palm oil currently on the market as “sustainable” according to its standards.

Ultimately, reforming this massive industry can’t be a task left solely to the RSPO. To help fill this gap, Conservation International is:

The palm oil industry has a long way to go before it’s truly sustainable — but we are making progress.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Comments

  1. Eviano says

    Good day.

    Please, I am from Nigeria. I am planning to start packaging the oil in bottles for sales in my country. But have little or no knowledge about palm oil storage and the issue surrounding it.

    Please, can you educate me about it challenges and possibilities.

  2. Anto says

    Palm oil IS the problem because it is as unhealthy as trans fats. So it’s a matter of health as well as conservation.

  3. Robert Perry says

    Palm oil is the most unhealthy oil to use in foods. Every article I’ve read about the palm oil industry tells of how little plantation owners care for the environment, human rights, and animal rights. It is a disgusting industry, comparable to the tobbaco and fossil fuel industries. This article is like saying that mountain top removal for coal is great because it uses less land than fracking. IMHO, palm oil is just one more of the many environmental cancers on this rapidly declining planet.

  4. Tom Yancey says

    I know little about palm oil, except that over the years I have learned that consuming it makes my skin erupt in tiny white blisters. I avoid it, and indeed it is found in many processed foods.

  5. Alfred Mani says

    I am from Papua New Guinea and is one of the leading country in South Pacific to produce palm oil. I know we can not stop this issue but we can hinder it by imposing tough penalties to those palm oil producers. one way is to stick to the Kyoto protocol about the polluter pay policy. Also the existing environmental policies such as ISO 14000 and 14001, RSPO policies etc, must be critically implemented to control the environmental degradation which would more likely to be caused by the palm oil industries

  6. Pingback: 4 ways climate change is making life harder for tigers | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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