What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an oil that is extracted from the fruit of the Oil Palm tree and has a wide range of uses, most notably for cooking. In addition to cooking, it is used as an ingredient in foods and snacks and is also commonly used in cosmetics, as a raw material for the chemical industry, and in candles. Due to these various uses, palm oil is one of the most produced and consumed oils in the world, along with olive oil and soybean oil. However, there is concern about its environmental and social impacts, and there are discussions about sustainable production and use.


Controversies surrounding Palm Oil

Palm oil production uses relatively little land and water and is one of the most productive types of oil. We can produce up to 20 times as much oil per hectare from palm versus the alternatives, it has probably spared a lot of environmental impacts from elsewhere.

That’s the reason that the production of palm oil has soared more than any other oil last 50 years 

Even though palm oil has higher productivity compared to other crops, large-scale palm oil production can contribute to climate change and ecosystem degradation. The process of planting oil trees removes forests, weakening their ability to absorb carbon, which contributes to climate change. 

The situation is severe in Southeast Asian countries. Small amounts of palm oil are grown in many countries around the world, but the global market is dominated by only two: Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2018, the world produced 72 million tons of oil palm. Indonesia accounted for 57% of this (41 million tons), and Malaysia produced 27% (20 million tons). 84% of global palm oil production comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. 

A global study of palm-driven deforestation found that in Southeast Asia, 45% of oil palm plantations came from areas that were forests in 1989. In Indonesia, this was 54%, and in Malaysia, it was 40%. It is clear that the production of palm oil in Southeast Asian countries affects deforestation and can contribute to climate change. But it is not easy to solve because there are several reasons.

First, palm oil is the most productive oil compared to others. If we tried to substitute palm oil for others, such as rapeseed or sunflower, we would need at least four times more land. It means more deforestation.

Second, Palm oil production contributes to economic development in many countries, helping to create jobs in the agricultural sector. The palm oil industry is a major source of exports for many countries. While forest conservation and combating climate change are important challenges, countries in the Global South consider economic development to be even more important. To them, the request that they keep the forest and reduce the production of palm oil is just a selfish assertion.


What needs to be done?

We can take action to halt the deforestation brought on by palm oil. It involves using palm oil that is produced sustainably. Nowadays, some certification programs are available to assist in confirming if palm oil is produced sustainably. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the most well-known. Launched in 2004, the RSPO certifies suppliers who grow their products more sustainably by managing high-value biodiversity regions, preventing the cutting of primary forests, completing impact assessments, and avoiding the clearing of land through fires. Food and cosmetic firms are under pressure to source from certified producers in response to consumer demand for sustainable palm oil, which ultimately rewards the most sustainable growers. The RSPO only covers 19% of palm oil production. Studies examining the effectiveness of the RSPO revealed that deforestation was successfully decreased. Most tropical forests do not persist on older plantations, as was discovered in this instance. Certification must encompass a far greater number of growers to have a meaningful, long-lasting effect. Consuming the palm oil that is produced sustainably can press the company to get a certificate, which would help prevent deforestation.


What are Friends of Earth doing?

At Birmingham Friends of the Earth we are supporting Friends of the Earth EWNI’s Planet Over Profit campaign. The campaign is calling for a new UK law to hold companies accountable for the damage they cause in their supply chains. You can read more about it here – https://friendsoftheearth.uk/nature/palm-oil-end-exploitation-big-business 

Written by Beomki Jeong



Hannah Ritchie (2021) – “Palm Oil” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/palm-oil’ [Online Resource]