Since the early 2000s, the rapidly growing production and use of palm oil has sparked one of the most heated global debates around the damage caused by agriculture. The debate has produced a wide range of opinions—from undiscriminating advocates of palm oil to those who radically oppose any use of palm oil whatsoever. Both of these positions are ill-informed and confuse important aspects of the issue. In the following section, we provide a brief factual overview of the most important issues relating to palm oil. For further information please follow the embedded links.
Why Palm Oil?
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, cocoa substitutes), cosmetics (soap, skin cream), cleaning products and other compounds. Since the 2000s, it has also been used as a cost-competitive source of fuel (heating oil, biodiesel) during periods of high crude oil prices.
Highly cultivated oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) can produce up to 6 tons of palm oil per hectare, a yield that easily surpasses that of soy, rapeseed (canola) 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. The fatty acid composition of palm kernel oil is very similar to that of coconut oil and is increasingly replacing the latter in technical and food applications. The high-profit potential of oil palm cultivation and palm oil production explains why governments and private businesses are boosting the cultivation of oil palms in an ever-increasing number of tropical countries. This cultivation is done almost exclusively on the basis of gigantic monocultures, frequently with disastrous effects on people, animals, and the environment.
If palm oil use continues unchecked in the energy sector, such as for biodiesel in the EU, the cultivating countries (notably Indonesia) will promote the establishment of new plantations, leading to grave ecological and humanitarian costs. Growing public pressure on the EU government has now lead to the first steps in banning palm oil as a fuel.
Oil Palm and Ecology
If cultivated on a small scale and in mixed cultures, the oil palm can be an excellent 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 harms people, animals, and the environment. In Indonesia, in particular, new plantations are often planted on primary rainforest land. This involves the drainage of peat soil and the burning off of existing vegetation. It destroys the natural resources of the local inhabitants and animals. The emission of greenhouse gases and smoke particulates has been worsening the air quality in Singapore for years. The mainly seasonal work attracts migrant workers without giving them and their families permanent housing, schools, and other important living conditions. Child labor is not unusual on plantations. Faced with strong public pressure, international producers and users of palm oil such as Unilever and Cargill, joined forces with the World Wildlife Federation and initiated the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). While this was a good first step towards the responsible management of plantations, its implementation appears inadequate, and it notably fails to prevent the creation of new irresponsibly planned plantations. Since buyers in many countries have no interest in fair and sustainable organic palm oil, there is still a market for oil from such irresponsibly created and operated plantations.
The expected expansion of unregulated destructive palm plantations calls for increased pressure from consumers to insist on fair and organic palm oil. This demand will drive the growth of Serendipalm and other producers of fair and 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 the implementation of those demands. The success of the campaign “Kein Palmöl in den Tank” (“No palm oil in the tank”) by the German NGO “Deutsche Umwelthilfe,” with support from Dr. Bronner’s, which convinced the EU to phase out the use of palm oil as a “renewable source of energy” is a sign of hope.
Healthy or not?
Palm oil, whether red or refined, is now considered to be a healthy edible oil. In nutritional terms, plant oils are primarily characterized by their fatty acid composition and the number 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 suggested that some saturated fatty acids actually have a positive effect on the ratio of cholesterol types 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. It is also important to keep in mind that one reason for the rapid growth of palm oil used in foods is that it replaces partially hydrogenated oils which contain trans-fatty acids (trans fats). In the 1990s trans fats became recognized as a major contributor to heart disease. They came under increasing regulatory pressure and are now banned in the U.S. and other jurisdictions. For foods that require solid fats, palm oil is widely considered to be a better option than trans fats. Finally, 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 its tocotrienols. All these factors contribute to palm oil’s overall positive nutritional profile.
Processing and toxins
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 used. When plant oils are deodorized using temperatures in excess of 240°C (460°F), toxins such as glycidyl fatty acid ester and 3-monochloropropane–1,2-diol (3-MCPD), suspected human carcinogens, are produced. This also occurs when rapeseed oil and sunflower oil are refined. Since 2014, Serendipalm has worked closely and successfully with its 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. As a result, Serendipalm’s RBD palm oil has complied with the increasingly strict guidelines by the German federal government for acceptable daily intake levels. The shift to a two-stage deodorization now keeps the levels of the above toxins below the detection limit.