What is palm oil?
Palm oil is an edible plant oil, high in saturated fats, that is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. There are two main species of oil palm tree: the African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis), native to West Africa, and the American Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera), native to Central and South America. A mature oil palm tree produces palm fruit that is reddish in colour and about the size of a large plum with a single seed or kernel. The fruit grows in large bunches weighing up to 40–50 kilograms.
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 in food. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the seed of the fruit and is used mainly in the manufacture of cosmetics.
Where is palm oil produced?
Both species of oil palm grow in Ghana, Columbia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia. Oil palm trees have thrived following their introduction to South-East Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 85% of global palm oil production. In South-East Asia, palm oil plantation establishment is a major driver of deforestation.
What grocery products contain palm oil?
If your shopping basket includes packaged products like bread, biscuits, chocolate, chips, sandwich spreads, instant noodles, shower cream and shampoo, then it’s likely you are buying palm oil.
Palm oil and its derivatives are present in half of all packaged foods on our shelves. This is because it is stable at room temperature and has a longer shelf life than butter or other vegetable oils.
Palm oil is used as a shortening to make biscuits and breads. It is also used for deep fat frying. Palm oil derivatives can be used in cosmetics because they make products like shampoo creamier.
What is the problem with palm oil?
Palm oil only grows in the tropics, where, if cultivated in an unsustainable way, it can have negative impacts on people and the environment. These include indiscriminate forest clearing, habitat loss for threatened and endangered species, poor air quality from burning forests and peatlands, and threats to the rights and interests of local communities. A report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledges that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. Of even greater concern is the fact that demand for palm oil is predicted to increase, and forests constitute most of the remaining suitable areas for plantations.
Palm oil quick facts
- Australia annually imports approximately 130,000 tonnes of palm oil
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry led, not-for-profit association of the palm oil industry that includes stakeholders from all industry sectors
- RSPO members account for 40% of the global palm oil industry
- 300–700 million hectares of abandoned land could potentially be used for oil palm plantations
- The premium for certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is up to 40% a tonne. Under the Book and Claim system, the cheapest is Greenpalm, endorsed by the RSPO.
- RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil accounts for about 4% of global palm oil – approximately 2 million tonnes.