Because palm oil is cheap and efficient, it is the world’s most widely used vegetable oil and global consumption is rising.

Palm oil is used in the production of foods such as cake, chocolate, biscuits, margarine and frying fats. It is also found in cosmetics, soap, shampoo, cleaning products and can be used as a biofuel. Up to 50% of products in an average UK supermarket now contain palm oil!

The good…

Infographic explaining what is good about palm oil

Oil palm trees are highly productive and the yield per square kilometre is higher than for any other edible oil. Growing oil palm trees is the most efficient use of land for vegetable oil, producing twice as much as coconut trees and over thirty times as much as maize.  It also requires less fertilisers and pesticides  to grow the crop.  This means that palm oil has the potential to be very environmentally friendly if it is grown sustainably.   Palm oil is a very versatile crop and can be used in a variety of products from liquids to solids, foods to cosmetics.  This make palm oil an attractive option for many industries.   Agriculture for crops such as oil palm is also hugely important for the economy of tropical countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, helping them to achieve their development goals.

And the bad…

Infographic explaining what is bad with palm oil

The demand for palm oil has resulted in the rapid and unregulated expansion of oil palm plantations, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where around 85% of the world’s palm oil is now produced. Vast areas of rainforest – once home to orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos – have been cleared to make way for oil palm trees. The new plantations contain just a fraction of the flora and fauna of rainforests and cannot sustain the native wildlife. As a result, animal numbers are falling fast.  Rainforests are often found on tropical peat soils. When the forests are cleared and peat lands drained to make way for plantations, carbon is released contributing significantly to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global warming.  Illegal fires lit to clear land for the development of plantations have also become a huge issue, spreading smoke and haze across South East Asia, and impacting both biodiversity and human health.  In addition, there can be social implications in the development of plantations with instances of human rights issues, poor workers rights and land grabbing by plantation owners from local communities.

The challenge…

Infographic explaining what the challenge with palm oil is

If we were to stop using palm oil, we would need to find an alternative to supply the global demand for edible vegetable oils. Because other oil crops – such as soybean, coconuts, olives, sunflowers and maize – are less productive per square kilometre, even more land would need to be converted to agriculture.  Demand for palm oil globally means that a boycott of palm oil would have limited to no impact on how palm oil is grown; a whole industry change instead needs to take place.  Our best chance of protecting wildlife is to demand sustainably produced palm oil and continue to improve standards to make sustainable palm oil better for wildlife.

The solution…

In recent years a number of organisations have started to produce and source palm oil more sustainably. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed sustainability standards for palm oil produced with minimal impact on wildlife, local people and the environment.  Whilst acknowledging that there is room for improvement to make this system more efficient and transparent, engaging with the scheme, rather than ignoring it, is the only way we can make a change to have a positive impact on palm oil production.   Some companies themselves are taking their own steps to go further than the RSPO scheme and become ‘deforestation-free’.  Together, conservation organisations in this initiative are working with others to improve these standards further to make palm oil production even more sustainable. Buying only products that contain certified sustainable palm oil is an important first step in the journey to protect animals like orangutans and others that share its rainforest habitat.