PALM OIL ORIGINS

Palm oil is derived from ripe fruits on a palm oil tree. The meat can be converted into crude palm oil, and the seed can be made into palm kernel oil. Annually, over 69 million tonnes of palm oil is produced.

The oil palm tree grows best in tropical regions near the equator. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Nigeria are home to the world’s oil palm plantations. These trees grow best in what’s known as peatland, or a waterlogged soil that organic matter does not decompose very quickly in. Because of this feature, it acts as a carbon sink, absorbing more carbon from the air than it releases. When left alone, peatlands are usually home to extremely biodiverse tropical forests, where a lot of different plants and animals thrive, acting as an air purifier.

As it turns out, oil palm trees compete for space with these tropical forests. When these peatlands are razed and drained, they make the perfect environment for palm oil plantations. To convert the land, the existing trees and plant life must be chopped down or burned. This results in the destruction of massive, diverse forests, which are also home to many endangered species like Sumatran tigers and rhinos, orangutans and Asian elephants. Burning the land also produces a lot of haze, which has become commonplace throughout Southeast Asia just before the rainy season each year.

If palm oil is this bad for the environment, why does it continue to be so sought-after?

UNIQUE CHEMICAL MAKE-UP

Palm oil is in such high demand because it can be used in such a wide array of products. It has a really unique chemical make-up and is the only vegetable oil with 50% saturated and 50% unsaturated fatty acids. This allows palm oils to be used for a lot of things. Nearly 70% of palm oil is used as either cooking oil or in food. Palm oil can also be found in soaps, detergents, candles, animal feed and biofuel, among other things.

THE ECONOMICS

Of all other vegetable oils, growing oil palm trees is the most cost efficient. The three other most common vegetables used to make oil are rapeseed, sunflowers and soybeans. To put it into perspective, soybeans yield 466 tonnes per hectare, sunflowers can produce 1190 tonnes per hectare, and rapeseed can produce 1190 tonnes per hectare. Oil palm trees, on the other hand, produce 5950 tonnes per hectare of farmed land. That’s a big difference!

While other vegetables can be used to make oils to potentially replace palm oil, no other vegetable can compete with this kind of efficiency. Because of this, the inputs into growing oil palm trees are very low, while the outputs are very high. In other words, the cost of production is very cheap, and it makes farmers a lot of money.

While other oils could theoretically replace palm oil, there is no other oil that is as cost efficient. Because companies are motivated by cost rather than by what might be most (or least) environmentally friendly, it is difficult to imagine anything replacing palm oil. Some companies farm palm oil sustainably and, for now, they are the ones we should support.