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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

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Video: Oil plantations threaten the rainforest

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Wilmer Forero
2 January 2018

When you use alternative vegetable oils like soja, sunflower, and canola for food products like chocolate, baked products, spreads, ice cream, among others, it will be required chemical processes to transform oils into solid fats. These processes required large amounts of resources (water, energy, natural bleaching earth, H2, Ni,...) that could make a major environmental impact than produce Palm Oil RSPO.

Mirjam Habel
23 June 2017

Thank you for your comment, Ario Wicaksono, and for adding another important perspective. The palm oil industry has various dimensions, others with considerable impact are the political and international business dimensions. It can be a challenge that within these areas the original national intentions are not taken off their hinges.

Ario Wicaksono
22 June 2017

Clearing forest for cultivation at industrial scale is getting difficult now (2017) and doesnt' look to change in the next 5-10years, a mere fact.

The article fails to note how overregulated the palm industry have been in the last 4years particularly on the end series of supply chains!

Only few international readers understand that ,,Forest" as per land use, is in fact being governed with very rigid, highly complexed regulatory framework. E.g Productive forest, conservation area, customary area. Change of legal status from productive forest into massive industrial agro plantation is not as quick-and-easy process. Not one individual, clan or tribal, nor family shareholders of certain enterprises or industry market leaders have the right to assume full ownership of ,,,Forest" , only the State as mandated by the Constitution. While leases are no longer valid options, it is unclear to assess which forest type being slashed-n-burned?

Tracing to the ownership of the industry, most of the shareholders are not typical indonesian business people although operating in Sumatra-Malaka-Borneo vicinity. Naturally, holdings are strategically managed and hedged in Singapore (lower tax corporate rate at 17% vs 25% in Indonesia). END of supply chain.

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