An introduction to palm oil

For those of you that don’t know much about palm oil, here’s a brief summary…

First things first. Palm oil is a vegetable oil that is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, otherwise known as Elaeis oleifera. It’s not only used in a wide range of food products, from many chocolates, margarines and ice creams, but also in detergents, make up and in biofuels.

Oil palms originated in West Africa where they used to be cultivated on a small scale for medicinal use and use as a staple food crop. However, they soon made their way to Southeast Asia during the 19th century, with Malaysia and Indonesia currently ranked as the top two producers and exporters of global palm oil (accounting for approximately 85% of total global palm oil production). Despite its predominance in Southeast Asia, palm oil is also grown in many countries throughout Africa and Latin America due to their ideal conditions for palm oil growth, i.e. an abundance of heat and rainfall.

http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/hs92/1511/
The share of countries that export Palm Oil. http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/hs92/1511/

Resulting from the ever-growing population is a higher demand for this vegetable oil. The production of palm oil has increased exponentially over the last five decades and this exponential growth is only set to increase. To put this into figures, doubled between 2003 and 2013, and looking into the future, the demand is set to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.

Why the big controversy?… Although palm oil is economically beneficial to the producing countries, on the other hand the prevalence of large-scale deforestation in the industry has detrimental socio-economic consequences, with habitat degradation, air pollution and indigenous rights abuses just to name a few. According to WWF, each hour the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared for palm oil production, with this large-scale deforestation partially responsible for Asian Elephants, Sumatran Rhinos and Orangutans being given the status of endangered and critically endangered.

In response to the negative impacts, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 with the aim of promoting and implementing socio-economic and environmental sustainability in the production and use of palm oil. The RSPO is an organisation comprised of 3,444 members (as we speak), with stakeholders ranging from oil palm growers and consumer goods manufacturers, to retailers, banks and NGOs.

While I back a palm oil free product, given the estimated growth of demand for palm oil, boycotting might be a little optimistic…so is certified sustainable palm oil a more realistic solution?

 

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