Palm oil is used in 1000s of products – including many you’d never imagine contained the stuff!

Therefore we need to produce millions of tonnes of it every year. And here lies the problem: that level of production and the methods used are damaging our environment. Rainforests are being cut down, habitats destroyed, and biodiversity reduced. (Source: RSPO)

Can palm oil be produced sustainably? Let’s start by understanding what palm oil actually is.


What is palm oil?

Palm oil is ‘an important and versatile vegetable oil which is used as a raw material for both food and non-food industries’ according to Green Palm Sustainability which operates the Book and Supply Chain option for RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil).

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil for people, the planet and prosperity.

As a tropical oil, palm oil can only be grown within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. These regions, in Asia, Africa and South America, house vast areas of tropical rainforest with a high biodiversity. The demand for these oils has dramatically increased in the past few decades and therefore palm oil plantations have expanded rapidly to meet this global demand. It is estimated that there are 13-14 million hectares of palm oil plantations across the equator, producing a total of 56.2 million tonnes of palm oil in 2013.



This is a cause for concern for anyone who cares about the environment – as the huge amount of land needed to grow this crop is gained by cutting down biodiversity rich rainforest and replacing it with mono culture plantations.

Palm oil is harvested in great quantities and accounts for 35% of the world’s vegetable oil market. The reason for this is the efficiency of the crop;

  • It can be harvested all year round whereas other vegetable oils cannot.
  • It requires just a tenth of the land needed by other oil-producing crops.
  • It yields 3.74 tonnes of palm oil per hectare PLUS 0.4 tonnes of palm kernel oil and 0.4 tonnes of palm kernel expeller / cake. Palm kernel expeller is used extensively in the animal feed sector.
  • Palm oil supplies both the human food chain and the animal feed sector – two huge markets.


Despite its negative impact on the environment, it can be argued there is a social benefit; many people in these developing world countries rely on palm oil production to earn a living.  Oil palm smallholders are some of the poorest farmers in the world and the money they receive growing the oil is crucial to their livelihood. Further, the production of this oil forms the backbone for many countries, for example, palm oil accounts for 11% of Indonesia’s export earnings. This however is a vicious circle as the livelihood of these people and countries comes at the cost of animal and environmental wellbeing.

P-people-family-southamericaIn addition, this social benefit is not as clear-cut as it seems. There have been many cases of large corporate palm oil producers illegally grabbing land from local farmers. For example in 2013 Wilmar International, a Singaporean multinational which describes itself as “the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm and lauric oils’’ and is a member of RSPO, was taken to court for illegal land-grabbing in Nigeria (see: http://www.foe.org/news/archives/2013-09-communities-in-nigeria-take-wilmar-to-court-for-lang)

There is no doubt that the social and environmental effects of palm oil are great; deforestation, loss of habitat, loss of farming land, illegal land grabs and reduced biodiversity being just a few of the negative impacts.


The answer therefore, according to the RSPO is sustainable palm oil.P-Tanzania-lodge-TropicalTrails

As the demand for palm oil is already huge and continues to rise, sustainable agriculture is considered the only way to maintain and sustain the economic performance while still attempting to halt the damage to the environment and farming communities.

According to Green Palm, ‘certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations, which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice.’

According to RSPO’s website these criteria are:

  • no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.
  • a significantly reduced use of pesticides and fires; fair treatment of workers according to local and international labour rights standards, and the need to inform and consult with local communities before the development of new plantations on their land.


However, auditing a trail from plantation to product is a complex task. In order to achieve the critical mass needed for refining and transportation palm oil is collected from multiple sources and mixed together.

In 2013 Greenpeace, in their report entitled ‘Certifying Destruction’ state that “RSPO certification is not protecting international household brands from the risk that the palm oil they use is tainted with deforestation. RSPO standards are not prohibiting deforestation and peatland destruction. Mapping analysis shows significant deforestation in concessions currently owned by RSPO members, and a significant share of the fires that covered Southeast Asia in haze this June were in RSPO member concessions….Companies seeking deforestation-free palm oil now need to go beyond RSPO if they want to break the link between palm oil and deforestation.” Friends of the Earth has also suspended its support for the RSPO.


As consumers we have the power to push producers to convert to sustainable production – if we make it clear that is what we want producers and the manufacturers of the end products, will be forced to comply. So write to your retailer and your favourite brands and ask them what they are doing to ensure their palm oil is sustainably produced.



About the Author:

Lillie Garcia-Santos is a second year student from London studying English Literature at The University of Sussex. With a passion for animals, health and the environment, Lillie is a newly converted vegan and loves it. In her future Lillie hopes to become a travel journalist and hopes one day to live in a totally eco-friendly house in London




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