The story of palm oil starts in the rainforest, home to more than half of the world's estimated 10m species of plants, animals and insects and seen as a potential source of cures for a range of diseases. Known as the ‘lungs of the planet’, rainforests recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. They also store water, prevent soil erosion and protect biodiversity. But they're under serious threat.
Palm oil plantations in south-east Asia have tripled in just a decade, driving deforestation, habitat loss and the destruction of communities across Indonesia and Malaysia. These plantations also have a large impact on greenhouse gas emissions because they are often established on land converted from swamp forests, which release carbon dioxide and methane when they are cleared.
The story of palm oil is a complex one. The industry offers a path out of poverty for many people in developing countries such as Indonesia, where more than 28 million live below the poverty line. However, many oil palm plantations have been developed without consultation or compensation of the people that live on the land. These communities may not own their land but have managed it for generations, growing food and cash crops, and gathering medicines and building materials from the forests.
WHERE IT GOES
The 42m metric tonnes of palm oil exported each year is shipped to more than 70 countries around the world, where it is used in everything from biofuels to chocolate bars. Of that, 16% was certified sustainable palm oil in 2013, meaning it meets standards around deforestation, lawfulness, transparency and social impact laid out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. However many say these are not sufficient to ensure it is sustainable and deforestation-free.
Companies are under increasing pressure from many sections of society to reduce their environmental and social impacts. When it comes to palm oil, some businesses have responded to these demands, such as Unilever, which sources 100% of its palm oil sustainably; but others, such as Burger King, refuse to disclose what percentage of the palm oil they use is certified.
Palm oil is estimated to be in around half of all packaged items found in supermarkets and is a common ingredient in margarine, biscuits, bread, breakfast cereal, instant noodles, shampoo, lipstick, candles, detergents, chocolate and ice cream. It is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, accounting for 65% of all vegetable oil traded internationally.
Rapeseed and soybean oil are among the most popular alternatives to palm oil but their cultivation can also damage the environment. In fact, palm oil has a better yield per hectare and requires less fertiliser and pesticides than either. Campaigners are wary of pushing for alternatives to palm oil and instead want to improve the palm oil industry.