Palm Oil

Have you heard of palm oil?  How about vegetable oil or olive oil?  Oils from plants, vegetables, seeds and nuts have been used for centuries all over the world for many different foods and products. 


Palm TreesOil palms are palm trees which grow hundreds of little orange/red fruits that are squashed, squeezed and pulped to produce palm oil.  It is estimated that 33% of all the products in your local supermarket contain palm oil - that’s a lot of products!  It is used in bread, cereals, chocolates, pizzas, cleaning products, chewing gum and even shampoo.

Sometimes land is cleared so that it can be replanted with valuable cash crops such as the oil palm plant, which produces palm oil.  It can also be used as a biofuel instead of petrol or diesel.  Indonesia produces 90% of the world's palm oil and aims to double its production by 2020.  Palm oil production is such a huge business in Malaysia and Indonesia that the latter has gained the title of “World’s Fastest Rainforest Destroyer” in the Guinness Book of World Records!

Palm OilValuable trees are harvested and the rest are burnt to clear the land for the farming of palm oil.  As the soil’s fertility does not last forever, the people at the head of logging companies avoid bankruptcy by buying up new areas of forest.   Burning the trees and the peatlands beneath them is highly polluting (see below) although the ash improves the soil’s fertility before planting.  

In burning the rainforests Indonesia is also burning the peatlands below which store masses of carbon.  Their peatlands cover just 0.1% of the earth’s land, yet contribute to 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases. This makes Indonesia the country with the 3rd largest carbon footprint in the world, when deforestation is taken into account!  Bio-fuel targets in Europe mean that demand for palm oil is set to increase, despite the fact that more pollution is caused producing bio-fuels than is saved by not using petrol and diesel.

Pet food and palm kernel meal

CatCats, dogs, pigs, cows and goldfish.  Some are pets, some are farm animals which provide us with food or milk, but one thing they do have in common - they are contributing to the destruction of Asia’s rainforests.

At the centre of the oil palm fruits, much like a nectarine, there is a stone, or ‘kernel’ and this is chopped and mashed up to produce the high protein ingredient palm kernel meal.  

All the way from Asia, pets all over the country are eating food containing palm kernel meal.  Imported products are products grown or made in other countries and then shipped to the UK, the opposite of this is exports - products made in the UK and sent to other  countries.  Many of the food companies importing palm oil for use in our foods choose ‘sustainable’ sources which means that more care and responsibility is taken and areas rich in wildlife and animals are protected.  But when it comes to the palm kernel meal used in pet food there’s a different story.

The UK uses a considerable 10% of the global supply in palm kernel meal, and 80% of this is used in animal feed.  The problem is that 0% of the ingredient is sourced from sustainable sources, which means that farmers could be destroying the most species-rich rainforests in the world. One victim of palm oil plantations is the orangutan. Sadly, experts believe deforestation for palm oil is the single greatest threat to orangutans in the wild.

Palm Oil and the Orangutan

OrangutanAccording to the IUCN, the Sumatran Orangutan is listed as “critically endangered” and the Bornean Orangutan as “endangered”.  Over the last ten years their numbers have halved and up to 5000 are killed every year, despite their status as protected species.  See our orangutan factsheet for more information.

The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was set up in 2001, with representatives from 40% of the palm oil industry, to provide a set of ethical and ecological standards for the production of palm oil.  However it has been largely ineffective and many of its members have been those with the worst practice.  Due to various ongoing campaigns, many of these international companies and others have finally decided to make sure their palm oil for their products are sustainably sourced - this includes a chocolate manufacturer, a soap maker, a bank and a fast food chain.
According to an article in the Guardian in 2013, the pace of change is very slow, and only 15% of the total palm oil market is sustainable. However, The Netherlands, the UK, and Belgium have pledged to import 100% certified palm oil by 2015. Certified palm oil has not yet made a dent in non-European countries, but it is hoped this will change.

Further Information

For more information visit these websites -

Why is palm oil bad for orangutans?  Mongabay

Kids Against Palm Oil (KAPO)


Image: Palm Oil by oneVillage Initiative

Information sourced from:

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2015), Pongo abelii [online]. Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/search [accessed 11/07/2015].

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2015), Pongo pygmaeus [online]. Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/search [accessed 11/07/2015].

Balch, Oliver, the Guardian (2013), Sustainable palm oil: how successful is RSPO certification? [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-palm-oil-successful-rspo-certification [accessed 11/07/2015].

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