If you’ve ever turned over a package and read the ingredient label on any processed food, you have most likely seen palm oil as an ingredient. You’ve also most likely heard the controversies over this widely used oil. including deforestation and orangutan extinction. To understand the controversies that surround palm oil, it is crucial to understand what it is. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. There are two types of palm oil. Crude palm oil comes from squeezing the fleshy fruit, and palm kernel oil comes from crushing the stone in the middle of the fruit. Palm oil trees are native to Africa but were brought to South-East Asia over 100 years ago. However, now Indonesia and Malaysia make up over 85% of the global supply.
Palm oil is in nearly everything. It’s in upwards of 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from bread, cookies, and protein bars to deodorant, shampoo, and toothpaste. Palm oil is a favorite in many processed products because it is a versatile oil that has many different properties and functions that makes it so useful. It is semi-solid at room temperature, so it can keep spread spreadable. It is resistant to oxidation which can give products a longer shelf-life. It's stable at high temperatures which helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture, and it’s also odorless and colorless so doesn’t alter the look or smell of food products. As well as being versatile, compared to other vegetable oils, the palm is a very efficient crop and can produce high quantities of oil over small areas of land, almost all year round. This makes it an attractive crop for growers and smallholders, who can rely on the steady income that palm oil provides.
Your question probably is “Well, if palm oil is so efficient, then why is it so bad”? Simply put, palm oil continues to be a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. It has played a key role in destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the Orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino. However, palm oil can be produced more sustainably and there is a role for companies, governments, and consumers to play. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm oil has on the environment and society. The RSPO has production standards for growers that set best practices for producing and sourcing palm oil, and it has the buy-in of most of the global industry. RSPO encourages companies to buy and use RSPO-certified palm oil across their operations globally and to be transparent in their use and sourcing of palm oil.
Even with an RSPO certification, some individuals choose to avoid palm oil, although the choice may prove challenging. Even with its controversies, many companies still rely on this 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 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6% of the land used to produce all vegetable oils. To get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean, coconut, or sunflower 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, species, and communities. So, if we want to put a stop to the overuse of palm oil, we will need a solution that combines efficacy and humanity for the animals, producers, and our world.