Explained simply: The problem with palm oil

Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world. Its cultivation is destroying many rainforests, making it a huge threat to the climate, people and endangered species. Yet the oil has many useful characteristics and is found in many more products than we think. It’s not easy for consumers to do the right thing.

Quiz: Which products contain commonly palm oil?

What are the advantages of palm oil?

Palm oil is derived from the fruit pulp of the oil palm. One reason for the wide popularity of palm oil and palm fat is that they make products like margarine or chocolate spread really creamy, so they’re much easier to spread. It also has a long shelf life. Unlike coconut oil, for instance, palm oil has no flavour and can be heated up without problems. That’s why, especially in Asia, lots of people cook and bake with palm oil. Commercial producers often see no alternative to using palm oil in shampoo, lipstick or washing-up liquid. That’s why it can be found in around 50 per cent of all products in German supermarkets. Palm oil can also be used as a biofuel, which in Germany accounts for as much as 42 per cent of overall palm oil consumption.

Little wonder, then, that around 65 million tonnes of palm oil are produced every year around the world. The 17 million hectares of land this requires is equivalent to half the size of Germany. That is another advantage of palm oil, namely that each individual palm produces such high yields that relatively little space is needed for its cultivation. As farmland is becoming ever scarcer around the world, this is an important argument in its favour. To produce soya oil, for example, you have to cultivate seven times the amount of space.

Focus on Indonesia

Indonesia is one of the countries with the highest CO2 emissions in the world. However, it is not industry or power generation that are responsible. Here, the climate killers are slash-and-burn forest clearances, the use of former rainforest for agriculture, and land drainage, burning, and destruction of peat bogs.

Indonesia can produce palm oil at a very low price. For this reason the demand is growing; as more palm oil is being consumed, more is also being produced – a typical rebound effect. According to research by oekom, the area of land used for oil palm cultivation has increased tenfold since 1990.

Where is the problem?

You could say palm oil is a miracle ingredient – if it weren’t for its grievous disadvantages. The oil palm grows only in tropical climates – and best of all in places that should really be covered with rainforest. Due to the growing global demand for palm oil, vast areas of rainforest have given way to miles and miles of oil palm plantation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. These two countries are responsible for around 90 percent of all palm oil exports.

The dramatic impacts of deforestation in the rainforests are well known. More CO2 is getting into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. The rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are home to many species of animals and plants threatened with extinction. The orangutan also lives here and is losing its habitat due to the forest clearances. Many people, whose families have been living in these rural areas for generations, have been dispossessed and driven out. Working conditions on the plantations are often inhumane.

So, should we try and avoid palm oil? Yes and no.

Are there alternatives?

Replacing palm oil with other tropical oils is not a solution. Producing them requires a similar climate to oil palms, but a much larger cultivated area. If we increase the use of coconut oil, for instance, it would surely lead to even more rain forest clearance in order to produce the same amount of oil. Oils that are produced in less ecologically sensitive regions, such as rape seed and sunflower oil in Germany, can provide a more meaningful substitute for palm oil. This was established in 2016 in a study by WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) entitled “Looking for the oil slick: calculations for a world free of palm oil” (“Auf der Ölspur – Berechnungen zu einer palmölfreieren Welt”).

Important facts about palm oil at a glance

  • Palm oil: Indonesia and Malaysia

    Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest palm oil producers by a large margin. Together they produce more than 50 million tonnes of palm oil each year.

  • Oil palms are more than three times as productive as coconut palms.

    Oil palms are more than three times as productive as coconut palms, for instance.

  • Palm oil cultivation

    Palm oil requires a much smaller cultivated area than other vegetable oils. 3.7 tonnes of it can be produced per hectare. For coconut oil, by comparison, the figure is just 0.7 tonnes.

  • Palm oil as a biofuel

    Palm oil is used particularly often in foodstuffs, as animal feed and for industrial purposes. In Germany, the largest use of palm oil is as a biofuel, with almost 500,000 tonnes of it used this way in 2015.

What solutions exist?

Palm oil must be produced with fewer adverse effects on people and the environment. A range of different certification systems provide clear guidelines on this. The most widely used is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Today, 21 per cent of all palm oil produced around the world is already RSPO-certified. This requires that certain social and ecological principles and criteria are met during its production. However, environmental organisations such as Greenpeace criticise the RSPO standard as they find it too lenient.

For the Forum Nachhaltiges Palmöl (FONAP; Sustainable Palm Oil Forum), one thing is clear: certification schemes alone can not solve the problem. That will also require support from policy-makers and legislators, the enforcement of laws that already exist, and responsible producers and traders. Since 2014, by the way, it has been obligatory in the EU to indicate the use of palm oil in food products. Perhaps other countries will soon start following this example.

Sustainable palm oil production – Germany and Indonesia launch a joint initiative

In May 2017, German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Müller, launched an initiative for sustainable palm oil in Indonesia. In this arrangement, Germany undertook to support the development of supply chains free of deforestation. “We need effective sustainability standards for palm oil cultivation as part of the EU’s free trade agreement with Indonesia,” said the minister. “We can use customs advantages for certified palm oil as an incentive. In Germany, we need to move from a 50 per cent share of certified palm oil to 100 per cent, more rapidly than we’ve been moving so far.”

Source: BMZeit 05/2017 (in German only)

Consumers must get involved too. WWF has established that, if we avoid using palm oil as a biofuel and if we consume with greater awareness, we could reduce our current consumption of palm oil by around 50 per cent. There is an innovative app from Switzerland which could be helpful here: with Codecheck, which is also available in English and will arrive soon on the US market, you can scan a product’s barcode to see if it contains palm oil.

5 Tips: How you can contribute to the sustainable use of palm oil

  1. Check a product’s ingredients before you buy it. But take care: instead of “palm oil”, labels often just refer to “vegetable fats and oils”. If, for example, on a packet of washing powder it says “Sodium Palm Kernelate”, that is also an indication of palm oil.
  2. If they’re available, choose products containing certified sustainable palm oil. Appropriate labels include the already mentioned Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), ISCC Plus (International Sustainability & Carbon Certification), Rainforest Alliance und der Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.
  3. Ready meals in particular contain a lot of palm oil, as do sweets and high-fat foods. It is also popular as a feed in the livestock industry. If you want to avoid palm oil eat more fresh and home-made products, and less meat.
  4. In many countries, palm oil is used as a biofuel. Leave your car at home more often and use public transport.
  5. Call on politicians and industry to do more to promote increased sustainability in the production and use of palm oil. The environmental organisation WWF, which has a presence in more than 80 countries, is just one of several organisations strongly committed to sustainable palm oil production.

Author: Susanne Reiff, to the point communication

Self-experiment: Is a life without palm oil possible?

Palm oil is practically everywhere, whether it be food, cosmetics or gasoline. And it is not always easy to identify. So DW's Klaus Esterluß decided to understand this ubiquitous stuff better. Turns out, he was naive.

#HowGreenAmI: One week without palm oil

Video: The price of palm oil in Sierra Leone

Video: Oil plantations threaten the rainforest

June 2017

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Andrew Jacob Ngereza
24 October 2019

Very interesting article nice to share

Syukri M Nur
20 March 2019

I will talk about solutions, and not complaints about the use of oil palm plants for Indonesia. Because for Indonesia, oil palm plantations are one of the solutions to open jobs and businesses for the community.
The solution I mean is the use of proven and economical scale technology to utilize solid waste and liquid waste from industry and oil palm plantations. Gasification technology, pyrolysis, esterification that has developed rapidly in Europe - especially in Germany and Sweden and Belgium need to be diverted to Indonesia to process palm oil waste into a variety of products that absorb carbon and can be used again as energy raw materials.
Transfer of technology is a solution if we do agree that maintaining a global environment is a shared responsibility without dropping each other in order to get a chance to prosper together. My friends in developed countries, this world is only one and round so helping us with your knowledge and technology for us can prosper as well and help preserve the world.

20 March 2019

The oppositors to oil palm are not correct to say that oil palm causes (a) environmental degradation leading to rapid climate change, (b) rapid soil erosion and loss of soil fertility, (c) heavy use of fertilizer which pollute the land, (d) heavy water consumption of oil palm leading to reduced availability of ground water, and (e) loss of diversity in the countryside.
The assumption of opposition to oil palm planting is based on wrong premise.
Their assumption is based on the Indonesia countryside scenario where natural or virgin forests and peat lands are being destroyed and burned to plant the oil palm trees.
The new and would-be oil palm plantings in the country are to reforests our grasslands, brush lands and degraded forestland. This greatly helps mitigate climate change, arrest the ongoing massive soil erosion of sloping lands and bring our eroded soils back to health for our current use and for prosperity.

Oil palm has a great potential for high yield and income just like Cavendish banana, hybrid rice and hybrid corn which are now bringing prosperity and inclusive growth to many farmers. The potential for high yield and income in oil palm is obtained by using scientific farming which includes planting of high yielding hybrids in suitable lands, adequate weeding and fertilization.
Through the application of adequate amount of fertilizer many oil palm farmers found the fulfillment of their dreams better.

In the hands of the Filipino farmers is a unique and special crop, the oil palm tree, which can be used to bring many positive benefits to the environment as a powerful tool in climate change mitigation. It is also the most efficiency crop in land use in the production of vegetable oil.
It also provide food security for the upland dwellers and the country, promote inclusive growth in the palm oil industry by overcoming poverty among the small landholders particularly the Agrarian Reform beneficiaries and the indigenous people.

Oil palm should therefore be expanded to provide the following benefits:
(1) To maximize the benefit of oil palm in mitigating climate change, it should be planted as an agro-reforestation crop in open grasslands, brushlands and degraded forest lands brought about by logging Successfully planted oil palm by smallholders in the brushland of Agusan without burning. Vegetation cover is attained in four years.
(2) Oil palm cultivation in these areas should be limited to lands which are suitable to this crop. This means the land within the elevation of not more than 400 MASL and with a slope of not more than 210. Under such conditions, oil palm shall greatly mitigate climate change as explain below.
(3) Climate change is brought about by the greenhouse gas (GHG) or the high concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. The solution is to “bind” the carbon to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
(4) The forest serves as “carbon sink” and oil palm is found as a better carbon sink than the natural forest trees because it captures higher amount of carbon/unit area. It stores the carbon better than naturally grown forest.
(5) Scientific studies reveal that the biomass of naturally grown forest trees “capture”25 tons/ha of carbon only, that of oil palm in its lifetime is P45 tons/ha
(6) This shows that oil palm is better than natural forest in promoting climate change mitigation.
(7) By converting grass and brush lands to oil palm trees, the carbon in the atmosphere is being trapped in the palm trees through photosynthesis.
(8) The amount of trapped carbon is influenced by the age of the palm trees.
(9) The older the palm tree, the greater the biomass and the amount of carbon being trapped.

(1) Studies abroad and in the country shows that the oil palm trees offers the highest percentage of agroreforestation success among reforestation species. It also provides the earliest forest ground cover. That is why in Malaysia and Thailand there is practically no grassland and brushland.
(2) All of these are agroreforest with oil palm. In the Philippines there are wide grasslands and brushlands due to the high percentage of failure of the plant species being used for agroreforestation

(1) Water is fast becoming a rare commodity, hence the need to plant a crop which can efficiently use water. Studies shows that oil palm is one of the most water efficient crops.
(2) In addition, oil palm plantation promote higher amount of rainfall as evidence by increase rainfall in rice fields in Bohol, Philippines which are adjacent to oil palm plantations.

(1) Oil palm is the most efficient crop in terms of land use. Lower hectares is needed to produce the amount of vegetable oil to meet the needs of the country.
(2) It is five times more efficient than the coconut tree in the production of vegetable oil.
(3) Oil palm produce over two tons of vegetable oil/ha per year as compared to less than 400 kg for the coconut tree.
(4) Oil palm, however, has the potential of producing four to five tons of vegetable oil/ha per year when scientific farming is used.
(5) Comparative area needed to meet the vegetable oil needs of the country of 1.5 million MT.
With coconut = 4,000,000 ha
With oil palm = 400,000 ha
(6) Hence the need to plant oil palm trees considering that the Philippine population is expanding and the land resource for agriculture is shrinking.
(7) The Filipino have to use oil palm for their vegetable oil needs to free wide tract of land for the planting other high value crops.

(1) Enable farmers to integrate other crops and livestock in the farm as oil palm requires less labor and attention.
(2) This enables the farms to integrate other crops and livestock for a higher income.

Pablito P. Pamplona, Ph.D.
(1) https://www.responsiblebusiness.com/speakers/pablito-p-pamplona/
(2) http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?recordID=PH2005000092

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