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8 things to know about palm oil

Our palm oil scorecard shows that many of the foods we eat are still contributing to deforestation. Here’s what you need to know. 

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.

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!). 

3. Why is palm oil everywhere?

Palm oil is an extremely versatile oil that has many different properties and functions that 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 so can give products a longer shelf-life; it’s stable at high temperatures so helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture; and 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 in the UK.

As well as being versatile, compared to other vegetable oils the oil palm is a very efficient crop, able to 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.

4. What is 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 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 was having on the environment and on 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 encourage companies to: 

  • Set robust policies to remove deforestation, conversion of other natural ecosystems, such as peatlands, and human rights abuses from their supply chains 
  • Buy and use RSPO certified palm oil across their operations globally 
  • Be transparent in their use and sourcing of palm oil ensuring they know who they are buying from and where it’s been produced 

It is important that the palm oil industry continues to invest in and grow support for and smallholder programmes and sustainable landscape initiatives. WWF is also working with governments in both palm oil using and palm oil producing countries to make sure that national laws are in place to ensure that any palm oil traded is free of deforestation, conversion and exploitation.  

6. 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 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. Furthermore, there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihoods. Boycotting palm oil is not the answer. Instead, we need to demand more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster. 

7. Can I trust RSPO certified products?

The RSPO is the global standard for the sustainable production of palm oil. When palm oil is produced in adherence to RSPO standards, growers help to protect the environment and the local communities who depend on the crop for their livelihoods, so that palm oil can continue to play a key role in food security, economic development, and food supply chains. We should continue to use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil in products, as replacing it would result in more deforestation and natural habitat conversion. RSPO certified products that use palm oil from ‘Segregated’ or ‘Identity Preserved’ supply chains offer the greatest assurance of sustainable palm oil.

Along with other organisations, WWF plays an active role in influencing and shaping the RSPO standard to make sure it puts in place more safeguards for people and the planet. In November 2018, the RSPO standard was strengthened and it now represents an essential tool that can help companies achieve their commitments to palm oil that is free of deforestation, conversion of other natural habitats like peatlands, and the exploitation of people.

8. What is being done 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 2019, 70% 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%.

An area that represents a substantial gap in the uptake of certified sustainable palm the use of palm-derived ingredients in animal feed – for chickens, pigs and cows, for example. Much of this palm oil material is unlikely to be certified. This area requires much stronger transparency and ambition from the UK industry, and is going to be critical over the coming years if we are to truly tackle the UK’s palm oil footprint.

What can I do?

The best thing we can do is support sustainable palm oil and avoid boycotts, since we know substitutions with other vegetable oils can lead to even further environmental and social harm.  

Check out our new WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard to see which brands and retailers are committed to sustainable palm oil free of deforestation and destruction of nature.  

What else can I do?

We need systemic change to fix our destructive food system and we can’t rely on voluntary business commitments. Join us in calling for the UK Government to deliver on its promise to make sure UK products aren’t contributing to the destruction of forests like the Amazon and in Borneo.

Tell your MP to act on climate change