Instant expert

Palm oil

It's used in everything from cosmetics to snack foods - so what's the deal with palm oil?

Palm Oil plantation

Credit: Wikimedia / Achmad Rabin Taim

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What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit pulp and kernels of one type of oil palm tree, an African species (Elaeis guineensis).

About 40 million tonnes is produced each year, with 86 per cent originating from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The rest is produced in Central America and regions of Africa.

That's a lot of oil! What's it used for?

The global market for palm oil is huge and that's because it is handy stuff.

It can be used in everything from your favourite foods, including biscuits, chips and ice cream, to household cleaning products, toiletries (including toothpaste) and cosmetics - even many organic ones.

Palm oil is also popular with the biofuel industry.

In the last 10 years, demand has seen the area occupied by palm oil plantations more than double.

Where do they find the land for producing it all?

Land once occupied by rich rainforests is often cleared to make way for new plantations.

For each year between 2000 and 2005, Indonesia lost about two million hectares to the industry. And according to Friends of the Earth, 86 per cent of all deforestation in Malaysia between 1995 and 2000 was attributed oil palm expansion.

That can't be good!

Indeed. Many of the old-growth forests cleared for palm oil production sit atop peat bogs, which are among the world's most concentrated stores of carbon.

As an area is felled, drained and often burnt in preparation, the peat dries and decomposes, freeing this carbon.

According to Greenpeace, almost two billion tonnes of climate change-accelerating greenhouse gases are released from this process of peatland conversion every year - and that's in Indonesia alone.

That's a big problem - is it the only one?

Unfortunately, no.

The forests being cleared are rich and complex ecosystems, and it is estimated by the Palm Oil Action Group that between 80 to 100 per cent of their birds, mammals and reptiles cannot survive in the plantations that replace them.

At particular risk is the orang-utan, whose only remaining habitat is prime target for clearing.

As many as 50 orang-utans die every week as a result of palm oil industry activities, according to the Australian Orangutan Project.

Since 1990 the number of Sumatran orang-utans has fallen by 91 per cent, with only 7,300 left.

Sumatran tigers, Asian elephants and rhinos are also at risk.

So what's being done?

The palm oil industry will inevitably continue to expand - the challenge is finding ways for it to do so sustainably.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to establish environmental standards for the industry. However, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of its efforts since it is a self-regulated body.

Nonetheless, small victories are being made. Several Indonesian provinces have enforced temporary bans on forest clearing for palm oil production, for example.

And in 2008 the Malaysian government announced intentions to prohibit further forest destruction and focus on the conversion of existing agricultural land instead.

I'm worried. What can I do?

Curent Australian legislation calls only for palm oil to appear as 'vegetable oil' on labels, making it virtually impossible to avoid - so ditching all your kitchen and bathroom products that contain it really isn't a workable option.

Instead, be active in your support for the production of sustainable palm oil.

Look out for products that do use RSPO certified sustainable palm oil (the first batch went on the market in September of 2008), and write to manufacturers and local and state government ministers about your concerns.