A Complete Guide to Palm Oil in Photos

Palm oil is the Mo Salah of vegetable oils - versatile, high yielding, and it originated in Africa ⚽️. The oil comes from the pretty little fruits of the oil palm tree, and is now the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world! 🌏🌴🌴🌴

📸 Simone Sbaraglia

Oil palm fruits ready for processing   📸 Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

What's it used for?

More like what's it not used for - it's in pretty much everything! 😲 The fruits produce 2 types of oil: the seeds produce an oil (palm kernal oil) which is mainly used in cosmetics, chemicals, and detergents; whereas the flesh of the fruit produces an edible oil used in food products (from 1 fruit ~70% of the oil comes from the flesh and ~30% comes from the seed). Palm oil is often broken down into fragments, like crude oil 🛢️ or ill-prepared contestants on Dragons Den, meaning its derivatives are used in many different products. In fact, palm oil is in >50% of packaged products in supermarkets, including all the best stuff - ice cream, chocolate, and pizza! 🍦🍫🍕

Where's it grown?

You can only grow palm oil in areas between 10° North & 10° South of the equator 🗺️, which just so happen to to be the most biodiverse places in the world! Whilst palm oil is native to West Africa, ~85% of the worlds palm oil is now grown in Indonesia & Malaysia! 🌏🌴 Here's the different stages for plantations:

The area is first cleared of all forest, typically by slash and burn methods.

📸 Rainforest Action Network (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Oil palm seedlings are planted in extensive rows.                               📸 Yayan Indriatmoko/ CIFOR

Eventually the plantations turns into something like this.                       📸 Agus Andrianto/ CIFOR

The Good ​​

With global consumption of vegetable oil set to double by 2050 as our human population grows over 7.6 billion, palm oil is the best candidate to meet this demand by a long shot 👨‍👩‍👧‍👧🌏. It's not the oil we want, but the oil we need right now - our dark knight 🦇. It's the most versatile of all veggie oils, can be harvested all year round, uses the least amount of resources and pesticides, and produces 3-8 times more oil for a given area than any other crop (a whopping 30x more than maize!), making palm oil the world's highest yielding vegetable oil, and the most efficient use of land to produce oil! 👏👏

Palm oil is also bringing people out of poverty and is crucial for the economies of developing countries in the tropical regions 💰. No country has ever developed without an agricultural part of its economy and palm oil is a very valuable cash crop. Limiting the palm oil industry denies improvements to peoples living standards and impacts the economies of places like Indonesia, where 45% of the palm oil is produced by smallholders who rely on the industry to lift them out of poverty. The opportunity to improve peoples living standards is literally ripe for the picking...

Two men working together to pound, wash, and boil oil palm fruit before use. 📸 Friends of the Earth International (CC BY 2.0)

The Bad

Here's the catch - because palm oil can only be grown in the tropical regions, it's in direct competition with rainforests and the wonderfully uniques species found there 🐒🐍🦋🦏. Global production of palm oil doubled over the last decade, leading to the rapid and unregulated expansion of oil palm throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, clearing vast areas of rainforest 😢. As a result, southeast Asia is undergoing the world's fastest deforestation rate (~1.3% p/yr since 1990)! 🌳✂️

Clearing of peat lands for oil palm in Sarawak, north-western Borneo. 📸 Wakx (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

With their homes being destroyed at an alarming rate, an almost indescribable diversity of species are in big trouble 😞. Between 1999-2015 around 148,500 Orangutans were lost in Borneo, with the main reasons being habitat loss and conflict due to palm oil 👎🏽. Conservationists think we could lose another 45,000 of our tree-dwelling cousins in the next 35 years if things continue 🤦🏼‍♀️🤦🏿‍♂️.

A Bornean orangutan hanging in the canopy 📸 Simone Sbaraglia

The elusive Sunda clouded leopard of Sumatra & Borneo are super adaptable cats, using a range of forest types, elevations & levels of disturbance, but they're not fans of oil palm plantations and now the last ~4,500 are in Barney Rubble 🐱🙀.

Clouded leopard prowling forest floor 📸 Dr. Alexander Sliwa

The Bornean pygmy elephant is currently considered endangered and only occurs in the lowlands of the northeastern part of the island in Sabah and adjacent parts of Kalimantan (Indonesia) 🐘🐘🐘. The main threats to these gentle grey giants are habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation - the main culprit of these threats? You guessed it. Oil palm plantations! 🌴🌴

Borneo elephants at the jungles edge 📸 Rick Prebeg

And I'm just highlighting the charismatic megafauna to grab your attention 😍. There's countless wonderful and incredibly weird species disappearing alongside these pieces of eye-candy, which are just as important for ecosystem health 🐝🐍🐌🐢🦎🐜🦋.