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10 things you should know about palm oil


Lately, we hear a lot about palm oil, and let’s face it, it’s usually negative and we might hear our ‘more environmentally informed’ friends tell us it’s basically the devil and we should avoid it at all costs if we care about the environment, the rainforests and the Orangutans. Well, here are ten things you should know about palm oil so you can make your own decisions about this ubiquitous ingredient with a bad reputation and the steps you can take to make a difference.

Let’s start with the basics…

1. What is palm oil?
It’s an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees, the scientific name is Elaeis guineensis. Two types of oil can be produced; crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil which comes from crushing the kernel, or the stone in the middle of the fruit. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of global supply but there are 42 other countries that also produce palm oil.

A smallholder palm oil producer in Sumatra, Indonesia holding palm oil fruit © James Morgan / WWF-International

2. What products is it in?
Palm oil is in nearly everything – it’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world (not in the UK though!). See a longer list of products at this link.

3. Wow, it’s everywhere! Why?
Palm oil is a super versatile oil that has many different properties and functions which makes it so useful and so widely used. It is semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it is resistant to oxidation and so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures and so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; it’s also odourless and colourless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. In Asian and African countries, palm oil is used widely as a cooking oil, just like we might use sunflower or olive oil here.

Everyday products that contain palm oil © WWF-International

And now a little deeper….

4. So, what’s the problem with palm oil?
Palm oil has been and continues to be a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino. This forest loss coupled with conversion of carbon rich peat soils are throwing out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. There also remains some exploitation of workers and child labour. These are serious issues that the whole palm oil sector needs to step up to address because it doesn’t have to be this way.

5. What solutions are there?
Palm oil can be produced more sustainably and things can change. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns of the impacts palm oil was having on the environment and on society. The RSPO has a production standard that sets best practices producing and sourcing palm oil, and it has the buy-in of most of the global industry. Many global palm oil using companies are committed to buying only RSPO palm oil and have made strong NDPE commitments – that’s No Deforestation, Peat or Exploitation. Many of these commitments are for 2020 so we all need to hold them to their word!

6. But why don’t we just switch to an alternative vegetable oil?
Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species. We need to address the root causes of the problem of bad practice by working with palm oil and other oil producers and buyers to change their ways. Boycotting palm oil is not always the answer, but demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.

Comparison of global oil yields in tonnes per hectare © WWF-Germany report, Searching for Alternatives

7. So, is RSPO good enough, can I trust it?
Like any multi-stakeholder process, getting a solution that works for everyone, is difficult and takes time. Whilst there are weaknesses in the RSPO standard and its systems that need to be fixed, it represents the largest, independent, third-party (i.e. quality checked) standard for palm oil. This year (November 2018) will see a meeting of RSPO members from around the world and all parts of the palm oil supply chain in Malaysia to review and strengthen the standard, marking a big step forward for the palm oil industry. Watch this space!

8. How are we doing in the UK?
In 2012 the UK Government recognised that we were part of the palm oil problem and could also be part of the solution. They set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources that don’t harm nature or people. In 2016 78% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable. This is great progress but there is more to be done to get to 100%.

9. What is WWF doing?
WWF works with actors across the supply chain, from producers on the ground to companies that process, trade, manufacture and sell products containing palm oil, financiers, governments of producing and purchasing countries and academics, other NGOs and consumers. We seek to work collaboratively towards the best solutions to make sustainable palm oil mainstream in a way that protects nature, increases livelihoods for the 7.5 million people that depend on it for their income and livelihoods and to ensure food security for a growing global population.

10. What can I do?
Here are four simple things you can do to help make a difference:

  • Use our WWF Scorecard to see which of your favourite brands and retailers use sustainable palm oil and are committed to ending deforestation.
  • Contact the brands – thank the best for having started to make a difference and demand those that are failing to do more.
  • Reduce your consumption and avoid waste.
  • Raise awareness of the issue and educate about more sustainable options to make a difference.

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