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Palm oil – valuable raw material or ecological disaster?

Palm oil can now be found in almost every second product in the supermarket – from chocolate creams and potato chips to mascara and soaps. Although palm oil is currently a huge global business, the production of palm oil is associated with numerous problems.

What is palm oil and where does it come from?

Palm oil is obtained from the flesh of the fruit of the oil palm. There is also palm kernel oil, which is obtained from the kernels of the fruit. The oil palm grows up to 30 meters high, originally comes from tropical West Africa and was brought to Malaysia in the course of colonization.

Oil palm fruits on palm leaves

Palm oil - a booming business

In the second half of the 19th century, the cultivation of oil palms in large plantations became increasingly important. The global area under oil palm cultivation has increased tenfold since the 1980s. Today, oil palms are cultivated on a total area of 30 million hectares worldwide. This is roughly equivalent to the land area of Germany. Today, the oil palm is widespread in all tropical regions of the world. Malaysia and Indonesia together produce more than 80 % of the world’s palm oil. Other countries such as Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria cover significantly less of the world’s production. In 2021, over 80 million tons of palm oil and around 8 million tons of palm kernel oil were produced from the fruit of the high-yielding oil palm. Palm oil is currently the world’s most important vegetable oil.

Palm oil plantation in Costa Rica

What is palm oil used for?

Palm oil and palm kernel oil are used to a large extent in the food sector and are a component of numerous products such as cooking oils, margarines, ice creams, cookies, chocolate bars and various ready meals. Palm oil is also used in many cleaning agents, cosmetic products and candles. Only around 5% of palm oil is used worldwide for energy production.

Palm oil - popular and versatile

Palm oil is a good substitute for crude oil. As a component of detergents and cleaning agents and as a renewable energy source, it has a good energy and ecological balance. There are also a number of social benefits. The palm oil industry creates jobs and economic stability for the countries where it is grown. Palm oil provides a long-term livelihood for many small farms. Palm oil is a culinary and cultural enrichment for many cultivating countries and their neighbors, especially in Southeast Asia. Refined palm oil is often used for cooking and frying, as it is heat-stable and relatively tasteless. Palm oil is also quite advantageous for industrial production: it has a long shelf life, melts well, can be produced cheaply and makes sweet spreads creamy and spreadable.

A bottle of palm oil lies on palm fruit

Palm oil causes problems for the environment and people

Ecological aspects

One major ecological problem is the clearing of rainforests for the cultivation of oil palms in monocultures. As the oil palm requires a tropical climate, it is grown in areas covered by rainforests such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The agricultural industry deforests huge areas every year in order to grow oil palms and fast-growing trees for pulp production. The release of CO2 through slash-and-burn and deforestation are also major problems. Valuable carbon reservoirs are lost through the destruction of forests and important peat bogs.

Palm oil is destroying the habitats of countless animals and plants in the countries where it is grown. The rainforests are home to endangered species such as orangutans, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers and Java rhinoceroses. These animals are highly endangered by palm oil production in these areas. In addition to an enormous loss of biodiversity, palm oil production also leads to waste problems caused by transportation and disposal. Palm oil production also leads to water pollution and soil contamination from herbicides and pesticides. The oil palm requires a lot of fertilizer and annual intensive care measures such as cutting off unproductive leaves. Due to the large-scale cultivation of the oil palm in monocultures, it is highly susceptible to plant pests. For this reason, pesticides are often used during cultivation.

Social aspects

Palm oil production is characterized by social injustice, few controls, numerous human rights violations and child labour. Many companies do not work transparently and create incentives by making false promises to workers. Large corporations in particular profit from palm oil cultivation, while people are forced to work under poor conditions. There are repeated cases of illegal slash-and-burn, land theft and violent evictions of indigenous groups who depend on and live in intact forests. There are also repeated cases of workers being poisoned by herbicides and pesticides on the plantations.

Palm oil monocultures on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia

Is there such a thing as "good" palm oil?

Although there are companies that have officially committed themselves to sustainability, they too have demonstrably participated in the destruction of important forests. Sustainable palm oil is therefore still virtually non-existent. According to numerous reports, the well-known palm oil certificate RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is characterized by green washing, as certified companies engage in overexploitation just as much as non-certified companies.

Some NGOS, including Greenpeace, have no fundamental doubts about the production and use of palm oil. The reason for this is the versatility and high yield of the oil palm. From an ecological point of view, it would not make sense to simply replace palm oil with other vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower oil. Instead, there should be a rethink on the part of the governments of the producing countries, but also on the part of the population. The current EU law on global forest protection, which applies to soy, palm oil, beef, coffee and cocoa, is a major and positive success. In terms of content, this involves the traceability of a product back to the place of manufacture. Products must also be “deforestation-free”, i.e. they must not be associated with the destruction of forests.


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