About Palm Oil

Sumatran Tiger Cubs - London Zoo

One of the greatest threats to the tigers and wildlife in general is habitat loss. Due to an ever-increasing human population this is a problem all around the world. Some areas are however impacted harder than others. Although these areas are in countries outside the UK and even the EU, it is something in our day-to-day life here that causes the rapid loss of habitat for Sumatran tigers, orangutans, and other wildlife species that live on the Island of Sumatra and in the south of Malaysia. It is Palm Oil that has led to a rapid deforestation in these areas.

You may not even be aware that you use it, but palm oil is in about 50% of the products, we buy in supermarkets. Unfortunately, due to a lack of legal regulations in view of labeling products, it is not necessarily obvious that palm oil is an ingredient in them. Since December 2014 food product need to be clearly labelled in view of containing palm oil and whether it has been sustainably sourced (the lack of the word 'sustainable' means that the oil has been sourced without any consideration for wildlife or the environment). There are many different terms, which are used for palm oil and a list of 30 commonly used terms is available on the Say No To Palm Oil web page.

Because palm oil being a more saturated fat, it is a preferred option by manufacturers of many products. Palm oil is used in a wide range of food products like bread, biscuits, ice cream, bread spreads, chocolate, other confectionery, seasoning and even dried fruit. Unfortunately, it does not end here. Palm oil is also used to produce detergents, washing powder and liquid, fabric softeners, hand wash liquids, soap, other body products, toothpaste, cosmetics and much more. Additionally, in South-East Asia in particular palm oil is nowadays also produced and used as bio-fuel and to generate electricity.

The percentage of palm oil in the individual products may be very small, but it is the wide range of products, which contain palm oil, that is leading to a demand of approximately 50 million tones per year at this stage.

Before 2014 palm oil was most commonly called vegetable oil on food products. Well, palm oil is a vegetable oil, but this is a generic term. Other vegetable oils are corn oil, canola oil, olive oil, rapeseed oil and sunflower oil, to name only a few. This means theoretically vegetable oil could be any one of these oil types. Although manaufacturers are nowadays obliged to label palm oil as such, I still see products using the generic term 'vegetable oil'; leaving it open to speculation what type of oil their products are based on.

Indigenous people in the areas, where oil palm fruit trees naturally grow, used palm oil probably for their food already a very long time ago (before history records started). The oil palm tree is however not indigenous to South-East Asia. This plant originates from West Africa, where it occurs on relatively open ground; often spread along riverbanks.

The earliest records about the use of palm oil in other parts of Africa than the area of its origin goes back to ancient Egypt, where archaeological findings included traces of palm oil. Based on the findings, it is assumed that it was used in food supplies for caravans and ship journeys during the time of the Atlantic slave trade. With the industrialization towards the end of the 19th century, palm oil was eventually also utilized for making candles and as lubricant for machinery. In order to provide for the growing demand in palm oil, European-run plantations were established in Central Africa and South-East Asia after 1900.

By 1930 the world trade in palm oil had reached 250,000 tones per year, which grew steadily to 500,000 tones in 1962, before starting to accelerated up to 2.4 million tones p.a. in 1982 and to 50 million tones over the same period of time (one year) nowadays. The annual growth of the palm oil production (~ 7.8%) requires an expansion of oil palm tree plantations by approximately 420,000 ha per year. This is based on the current increase in production, but considering the start of using palm oil as bio-fuel and also to generate electricity, the annual growth is expected to increase further, unless drastic changes can be achieved.

The largest share of palm oil production lies in South-East Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia hold about 85% of the world market. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer and exporter. For this country, palm oil is one of the largest industries. The export of crude palm oil and also of refined palm oil products is bringing a huge amount of foreign exchange income, which is important for Indonesia’s overall economy and also for employment of its population.

Although, from an economical perspective the increase in palm oil production is desirable for the countries, which produce and export palm oil, it needs to be clear that we will run out of space at some point. And long before humans will run out of space, it is the flora and fauna of planet Earth that suffers in the name of economic growth.

Indonesia has one of the greatest biodiversities in the world, but many species there are endangered or even critically endangered. There are at least 3 critically endangered species on the Island of Sumatra, the orangutan as well as the Sumatran rhinoceros and tigers.

Sumatran tiger, Jae Jae - London Zoo

The population of Sumatran tigers is currently estimated to be somewhere between 400 and 500 individuals. Considering the low numbers of wild Sumatran tigers and the threats, including the shrinking habitat, this species has been classified as critically endangered by IUCN
(International Union for the Conservation of Nature). As there has been no island wide census for some time, the above-mentioned numbers are estimates based on the last counts in the individual areas and assumptions made based on the habitat changes and other influencing factors (there has been no information available from Berbak or Gunung Leuser National Parks recently, and hence the estimates for these areas are considered highly speculative).

Tiga - Colchester Zoo

Besides the loss of habitat for wildlife, there are other environmental consequences when rainforest areas are cleared. An intact natural system is regulating itself and also our climate. This does not only include the temperatures, but also rainfall for example. Forests provide cover for the areas below the tree canopies, and this keeps the ground moist and keeps also the heat in overnight. Furthermore, trees support the general water cycle by absorbing water and releasing it as vapor back into the atmosphere later. There are ongoing studies, which research the impact of deforestation on rainfall in the areas and their surroundings. One point we know already from past experiences is that deforestation in rainforest areas leads to the ground quickly drying out without the protection of the tree cover.

So, why is palm oil so popular to seemingly justify the impact on our natural system and the future of critically endangered wildlife and plant species?

There are mainly two reasons for this. From an end-user perspective the high saturated fat provides products with a creamy texture. This seems to be favorable, and hence manufacturers prefer the use of palm oil compared to other vegetable oils. Furthermore, the oil palm fruit tree is a highly productive plant, which provides more oil per hectare than any other oil-producing crop.

The next question is, how can we in the UK make a difference and change the future for Sumatran tigers, orangutans and many other wildlife and plant species in Indonesia and Malaysia?

I think, the beginning lies in awareness. We can help, if we know what the products, we are buying, contain. We can make decisions to avoid palm oil containing products, or at least buy products, which have been based on sustainable palm oil.

It is obviously helpful to know what other names for palm oil are being used in products. As mentioned above, which is now easier with food products. On other products like detergent, shampoo, shower gel and hand wash lotion, I have seen quite often the terms ‘Sodium Lauryl Sulphate’ (SLS) or ‘Sodium Laureth Sulphate’. There are however countless different names for palm oil. The most commonly used names are available on the web page Say No To Palm Oil.

As a general rule, which might help identifying products with palm oil, if a product has been produced in Asia, vegetable oil is most likely palm oil. The same can be said if the product contains more than 40% saturated fat
(exceptions are dairy products, which may contain hi-saturated fat without the addition of palm oil).

Avoiding palm oil is rather difficult, considering the high percentage of products that contain it. It is however possible at least to some extend. There are products of the ranges that most often include this type of fat, which are palm oil free. Various web pages provide information on palm oil free products, for example Ethical Consumer or Say No To Palm Oil. We will continue to research available information and will provide links here, on our web page.

When looking at body care products and other similar goods, smaller businesses, especially if they offer handmade products, may provide palm oil free goods. This is of course not guaranteed, but most of these businesses are however happy to provide you with information on what their ingredients are. We found a stall at a local farmer’s market (in Kent), where customers are able to see and examine the individual ingredients of soap products; none of them include palm oil.

Another way to buy products with less impact on the wildlife and the environment in Indonesia and Malaysia is to look for sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil comes from plantations, which have not been clearing rain forest in the recent past. This is currently according to the ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) 14% of the entire market. Due to consumer pressure this has steadily increased over the last few years. Furthermore, there are regulatory changes in Europe, India and China, which indicate that sustainable palm oil will take a greater market share in the future. Unilever a well-known producer of chemical products, but also of some food products, claims to use solely sustainable palm oil since 2015. They recognise however that it is currently still impossible to verify the chain of sustainable palm oil from the plantation all the way down to the final product and aim to achieve this by 2019.

Currently, it is unfortunately not always clear where so-called sustainable palm oil comes from, as it is sometimes mixed in with palm oil from other sources. The industry is however in the process to change this and provide Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The 'Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil' developed a concept, which verifies independently that certified palm oil products meet a set of criteria throughout their entire life cycle; from growing oil palm trees through the production and the entire delivery chain to the end consumer.

In 2004 the ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) was founded. This is an international multi stakeholder organization and certification scheme for sustainable palm oil. Members are from all areas within the palm oil industry plus some environmental and social Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).

RSPO has established principles and criteria, which need to be verified independently for the palm oil to be certified as sustainable. The criteria that need to be met, include
  • The commitment to transparency
  • Compliance with applicable law and regulations
  • Use of appropriate best practice by growers and millers
  • Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity
The requirements that need to be met to get the eco-label, issued by the RSPO, include furthermore also social and economical aspects of production. A good source for further information on this are the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – RSPO web page and the ZSL web page Sustainable Palm Oil Platform (SPP).

RSPO Eco-label for certified sustainable palm oil

We, the consumer, can influence what manufacturers are doing by buying on a more informed basis products that are in line with the nature around the world. Palm oil has a huge impact on wildlife and our environment, and although it is not the only product with a negative impact, it would help, if all of us can be more aware of which products include palm oil to minimise negative environmental impact. We can help by either buying palm oil free products or at least products with certified sustainable palm oil.


Note: This article is based on information found on the Internet. Web pages, which have been sourced include:
Say No To Palm Oil
Sustainable Palm Oil Platform
The Cambridge World History of Food
Ethical Consumer