Since the early 2000s, the growing production and use of palm oil has globally sparked one of the most heated debates around the damage caused by agriculture. Every position is represented here from undiscriminating advocates to those who radically oppose any use of palm oil whatsoever. Often these positions are ill-informed and confuse important aspects of the issue. In the following section, we provide some short factual overviews of the most important issues relating to palm oil. For further information please follow the embedded links.
Global annual consumption of palm oil has risen since 2005 from 35 million metric tons (MT) to over 60 million MT. This means that palm oil—or palm fruit oil, to be more precise—has become the world’s most important plant oil. It owes its popularity to its unique composition of fatty acids and the associated wide range of uses. It is used in foods (baking fats, margarine, spreads, ice cream), cosmetics (soap, skin cream), cleaning agents, and other compounds. Owing to the rising price of crude oil since the 2000s, it has also increasingly become a cost-competitive source of fuel (heating oil, bio-diesel).
Highly cultivated oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) can produce up to 6 tons of palm oil per hectare, a yield that is a multiple of that for soya, rapeseed or sunflower oil. The oil palm is thus a clear candidate for large-scale plantation cultivation in the tropics, where low production costs and low selling prices can be achieved while still making a high profit. Apart from the fruit pulp, palm fruits also contain a palm kernel. In terms of its fatty acid composition, palm kernel oil is very similar to coconut oil and is increasingly replacing the latter in technical applications. The high profit potential of oil palm cultivation and palm oil production explains why governments and private businesses are demanding the cultivation of oil palms in an ever-increasing number of tropical countries. This cultivation is almost exclusively on the basis of gigantic monocultures, frequently with disastrous and globally criticized effects on people, animals and the environment.
If palm oil use continues unchecked in the energy sector, the cultivating countries will promote the establishment of new plantations which will result in high ecological and humanitarian costs.
If cultivated on a small scale in the tropics, the oil palm can be an example of sustainable agriculture. Conversely, in large-scale plantations with areas that are often in excess of 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), it almost inevitably leads to damage to people, animals and the environment. In Indonesia, in particular, primary rainforest is often cleared for new plantations. This involves the drainage of peat soil and the burning off of existing vegetation. This destroys the natural resources of the local inhabitants and animals. The emission of greenhouse gases and particulates has already been damaging the air quality in Singapore for years. The mainly seasonal work attracts migrant workers without giving them and their families a base, schools, and other important living conditions. Child labor is not unusual on plantations. Faced with strong public pressure, producers and users of palm oil such as Unilever, joined forces with the World Wildlife Federation and initiated the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This seems to be a good first step towards the responsible management of plantations but its implementation appears inadequate, and it most notably fails to prevent the creation of new plantations. Since buyers in many countries have no interest in fair and sustainable organic palm oil, there is still a market for oil from irresponsibly created and operated plantations.
The expected expansion of palm plantations under conditions that are often unregulated calls for increased pressure in industrialized countries from consumers who insist on fair and organic palm oil. This demand will permit the growth of Serendipalm and Natural Habitats, who have made it their mission to produce this kind of organic palm oil. Governments are first and foremost urged to greatly restrict or entirely prohibit the use of palm oil in the energy sector where it has the greatest growth potential. The most important demands relating to the promotion of fair and sustainable palm oil are summarized in the Legauer Erklärung (Legau Declaration). Palm oil producers, environmental associations, food and cosmetics brands and consumers now have an obligation to help those demands to be implemented.
Palm oil, whether red or refined, is now considered to be a healthy edible oil overall. In nutritional terms, plant oils are primarily characterized by their fatty acid composition and the quantity of trace nutrients they contain. Varying slightly depending on the type of palm, palm oil consists of around 50% saturated and 40% monounsaturated oleic acid, the main fatty acid in olive oil. For decades, saturated fatty acids in food were seen as a leading cause of heart and circulatory diseases as they supposedly had a negative impact on blood cholesterol levels. Since 2005 numerous scientific studies have shown that some saturated fatty acids actually have a positive effect and that the potential disadvantages are not as severe as those caused by sugar or refined white flours. These findings are currently leading to a reassessment of all fats with a high proportion of saturated fatty acids, inclusive of milk fat, palm oil and coconut oil. In addition, unrefined red palm oil contains very high levels of carotene and of tocotrienols, compounds of the Vitamin E complex with high antioxidant potential. Even refined palm oil retains more than 50% of tocotrienols. All these factors contribute to palm oil’s beneficial properties.
Raw palm oil is dark red and has a distinctive, strong flavor. Both qualities are appreciated in West African cuisine but are not desirable for most food and body care applications. For these applications refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD) palm oil is preferred. When plant oils are deodorized using a powerful vacuum and high temperatures in excess of 240°C, toxins such as glycidyl fatty acid ester and 3-monochloropropane–1,2-diol (3-MCPD), suspected human carcinogens, are produced. This however also occurs when rapeseed oil and sunflower oil are refined. Since 2014, Serendipalm has worked closely and successfully with customers and oil refineries to minimize the formation of these toxins. The main measures we take are the optimization of fruit ripeness and the reduction of deodorization temperature. They now consistently achieve compliance with increasingly strict guidelines by the German federal government for acceptable daily intake level.