Palm oil is a common ingredient of margarines, biscuits, breads, breakfast cereals, instant noodles, shampoos, lipsticks, candles, detergents, chocolates and ice creams.
The list of products that rely on the unique properties of palm oil is long, with one estimate suggesting that about a half of all packaged items found in supermarkets contain it.
In fact, palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, accounting for 65 per cent of all vegetable oil traded internationally.
By 2020, the use of palm oil is expected to double, as the world’s population increases and as people – especially in countries like China and India – become more affluent and consume more manufactured goods containing palm oil.
The impacts of palm oil
Clearing land for oil palm plantations has led to widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as other regions. This has pushed many species to the brink of extinction, such as rhinos, elephants, orang-utans and tigers.
In some cases, forest clearance has forced indigenous peoples off their land, deprived them of their livelihoods and reduced essential ecosystem services such as clean water and fertile soil.
Globally, the destruction of tropical forests is a major contributor to climate change, as felled and burned trees and vegetation release methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, because fire is often used as a cheap and quick means to clear land for oil palm plantations, the resulting air pollution can block out the sun and threaten human health both near and far.
In recent years, almost a fifth of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia has taken place on peat swamps. When these peat swamps are cleared and drained they release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Up to 66 per cent of all climate change emissions from oil palm plantations come from the 17 per cent of plantations on carbon-rich peat soils.
The benefits of palm oil
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, high in saturated fats, derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It is grown commercially in several tropical countries but mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 85% of global palm oil production.
The palm fruit yields two distinct oils – palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit, is edible and used primarily in food products. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used mainly in the manufacture of soaps and cosmetics, while palm kernel expeller (PKE) is used as a feed for livestock and as biofuel for generating electricity.
Oil palm is highly productive, capable of yielding more oil from less land than any other vegetable oil, with relatively modest inputs. As a result, palm oil production has become an important source of income and a major part of the economy in the regions where it is grown, providing livelihoods for local communities and helping to lift people out of poverty.
Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil
Yes. Around 15 per cent of the world’s palm oil production was certified sustainable in 2013, up from 10 per cent in 2011.
Through WWF’s Market Transformation Initiative we are working to shift palm oil markets away from unsustainable practices and ensure that the industry can grow and prosper without sacrificing any more tropical forests.
Sustainable palm oil
Certified palm oil that is fully traceable and meets the standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Learn more about what WWF is doing.
Today palm oil is:
• the main ingredient for most margarines
• used in confectionery, ice cream and ready-to-eat meals
• the base for most liquid detergents, soaps, and shampoos
• the base for lipstick, waxes, and polishes
• used as an industrial lubricant
• used as a biofuel
Palm oil quick facts
• Palm oil is found in about half of the packaged products on supermarket shelves;
• Australia imports approximately 110,000 tonnes of palm oil annually, which is about 0.2% of global production.
• Total consumption of palm oil has increased tenfold since 1980 and now stands at around 50 million tonnes per year;
• Some forecasts suggest that palm oil consumption will increase by a further 50% by 2050;
• Together, Malaysia and Indonesia produce over three quarters of the palm oil consumed globally.