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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.

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)! 🌳✂️

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 🐝🐍🐌🐢🦎🐜🦋.

In addition to the threat palm oil causes to this bounty of species, it's also significantly contributing to the ever increasing problem of global warming and the climate crisis 🌞🏭. Rainforests are often found on tropical peat soils, which store tonnes of carbon. These peat lands are drained when forests are cleared for oil palm, meaning all this stored carbon is released like a raging bull at Pamplona 🐂🇪🇸. Further to this, palm oil is associated with some extreme violations of human rights for those working on the plantations - human trafficking, long-term abuse of temporary contracts, child labor, and unprotected work with hazardous chemicals to name a few 😡; some are even trapped in remote areas with no ability to pay for escape after being deceived by labor brokers.

A young worker harvesting oil palm fruits from a plantation in Indonesia. 📸 ILO/ Asrian Mirza (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What's the answer?

So with the superhero like potential of this crop to meet the global demand for vegetable oil, whilst lifting people out of poverty, and helping the economies of developing countries grow, can we farm oil palm in a way which halts deforestation, preserves species and peat lands, and doesn't violate human rights (coined ‘No Deforestation, No Peatland and No Exploitation’ - NDPE)? 🙋‍♂️ Basically, can we have the pros without the cons? Well, that's the aim of sustainable palm oil 🕺💃.

What is 'Sustainable Palm Oil'?

Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is produced according to the standards established by a not-for-profit association called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO in their words "unites stakeholders from the 7 sectors of the palm oil industry: oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil."

Basically, RSPO is a certification which tells you whether the palm oil in your chocolate bar has been grown to certain standards. But what are those standards? 🤔 There's a big old list of criteria which growers need to receive the RSPO certification (, but one of the most important states that no primary forests, or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems, or areas which are fundamental to meeting the basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.

However, there are flaws with this system. Does RSPO guarantee your palm oil is conflict free with no violation of human rights? It's meant to, but undercover reports found the contrary in 2013 and 2016 🕵️‍♂️🕵️‍♀️😑; the market is slowly responding to this as 400 major global brands committed to drive reforms in their palm oil supply chains and new legislation in France, the UK, and the US imposed bans on imported goods produced using forced labor. Yeeeshh - any other flaws? Yes 🤦🏾‍♀️

Secondary rainforest (forest that's regrown after being cut down or selectively logged) can be cut down for RSPO palm oil, and these forests can still support substantial amounts of wildlife. Additionally, RSPO criteria basically say that after a cut-off period (2005), you can't have cut down high conservation value forest and you need to have conservation values in your process. But that means if you cleared pristine rainforest in 2000 to set up an oil palm plantation, and are now producing palm oil in 2018, that can be certified by RSPO - but is it really sustainable? Ask Simon the sloth.

Don't Boycott palm oil

BUT, as my good friend Rafiki says, that's in the past... and you can either learn from it... or run from it 🦁🙊. Boycotting palm oil isn't the answer. It would increase demand for other less efficient oils and have even greater environmental impacts as you need wayyyy more land to grow them 🌽. More to the point, the EU only accounts for around 20% of the global consumption of palm oil, with the majority being accounted for by India and China where it's primarily used as a cooking oil by people who are very poor, and for whom sustainability really isn't a concern 🇮🇳🇨🇳.

If you avoid palm oil you remove yourself from the conversation and avoid the problem, and unsustainable palm oil will still be sold to these much larger markets who aren't calling for sustainability. By supporting CSPO production, we can help schemes like RSPO move swiftly towards 'deforestation free' through a traceable and transparent process and help to support advanced schemes such as RSPO+ and the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) which build upon sustainability standards. Currently more sustainable palm oil is being produced than is demanded by consumers, and it's even being sold as regular palm oil in some areas 🤦🏾‍♀️. So, by buying CSPO palm oil you're helping to change the whole industry to benefit both wildlife and local people, as you're using your purchasing power to show there's a demand amongst consumers for sustainable production 🌴.

📸 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

The future of palm oil

How is the demand for CSPO going to grow? 🕵️‍♂️Currently ~21% of the world's palm oil is produced sustainably - the highest proportion that any sustainability standard has achieved in any sector 🎉👌. Sales of sustainable palm oil recently rose by >500% in 5 yrs, from 0.4 mill tonnes in 2009 to 2.478 mill tonnes in 2014 📈. But ultimately, demand for CSPO depends on what happens in India and China, which together represent 60-70% of the global market 🇮🇳🇨🇳. Currently these countries show no interest in driving sustainable production, so the problem is how do we engage them in the conservation conversation 😏? Perhaps we don't need to and the answer is top-down government action in producer countries.

Sunset over an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan 🌅 📸 Nanang Sujana

But - will the governments in these problem countries act and enforce protection of their ecosystems and forests? 🤔 Your friendly neighbourhood palm oil expert @JossLyonsWhite says that "progress has been made in Indonesia over the last year with the Peat Restoration Agency, a government department tasked with restoring degraded peatland in the country and a momotorium on giving out new concessions... but it's a tricky country because there's a federal system where the states have a lot of power, but within states power is quite devolved, and there's a lot of corruption on the local level... so it's difficult for the government to enact new laws and ensure they're enforced throughout all the states". The problem doesn't stop in Asia either, as oil palm rears it's profitable head in Africa 🌍.

West Africa - palm oils' new frontier? 🕵️‍♂️

With countries in West Africa trying to develop, and the dangling carrot of palm oil offering economic prosperity, countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leonne, Gabon, and Liberia are all increasing their palm oil production 🥕💰. Unfortunately West Africa contains the Congo River Basin, which supports most of Africas rainforest, including the worlds second largest contiguous rainforest (the Ituri Rainforest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo) which is almost entirely pristine 🌳🌳🌳🌳🌳. See where this is going?

A freelance worker cleans palm fruits at the Sherman Plantation in Cape Mount County, Liberia 📸 Hodag (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The good thing is that many big companies in the global trade of palm oil have no-deforestation commitments. However, such commitment to no-deforestation is very difficult to achieve in West Africa, where countries are trying to develop. Many people in these countries have subsistence lifestyles, high infant mortality, poor health care and little material wealth. So it's easy for us in the West to say don't cut down your forest, but it's really all about environmental needs vs development. Can we not have both? Of course! 🕺💃 Through ecotourism, Gabon could become the 'Costa Rica' of Africa - there's 80% forest cover, insanely cool wildlife, a politically stable environment, long coastline, and their dwindling supply and reliance on crude oil screams for an alternate income for the country; this will only work if Gabon can curtail the construction of logging roads, which open up their forests to further natural resources exploitation, e.g. palm oil, crude oil, gold, and wildlife trade. However, my point is that alternative means of economic development exist for these countries, they're probably just much more difficult to achieve.

Cause for optimism

In November 2016, 7 African governments (Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone) signed the Marakesh declaration, agreeing to protect >70% of their tropical forests from unsustainable palm oil development - a HUGE deal considering these countries contain 13% of the worlds tropical forest (>250 million hectares). Hopefully these countries adopt the lessons learnt from Asia's palm oil industry.

How you can help from @JossLyonsWhite

1) "Buy sustainable palm oil & help support local livelihoods & the world's tropical species - don't remove yourself from the conversation by going palm oil free!" 👌 (you heard me Iceland).


How do you know the palm oil you buy is sustainable?

"In general you should know it's more about the shops your buying it from and the brand, rather than the product. For example, just under 100% of Sainsburys/Tesco's own brand products are RSPO certified. Not many products have the RSPO logo on despite it containing CSPO because it doesn't make people buy it, so they don't bother". Click here for a detailed list (created by Chester Zoo) of the brands which only use RSPO in their products.

2) "Get involved in initiatives that are effective in changing the behaviour of large companies, which are very influential in the palm oil biz. Some people bork at the sound of Greenpeace and have preconceptions that they're just a bunch of hippies, but they do amazing work and really make a difference with important issues, e.g. in 2017 they campaigned against HSBC who were, in a nutshell, funding companies that were clearing rainforests. Following this campaign HSBC agreed to stop funding these companies. So if you'd really like to help, get involved in a local campaign organisations like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth" 💪🌎

3) Help spread the word! Share factual materials on palm oil and tell your friends and family about it so they can get involved - small changes add up to big differences.


Palm oil is a wonderful cash crop with tremendous potential, but it's responsible for, and consequently associated with, deforestation, loss of wildlife, and human rights abuse. However, looking to the future, palm oil can be grown sustainably, in a way which avoids these issues, if there's sufficient demand and willpower. It's an extremely difficult task and a complex problem, but we can achieve these goals if we have real public and government engagement, in addition to the development and enforcement of good legislation. Together we can transform the industry for the benefit of both people and wildlife worldwide 💪🌎.

📸 Simone Sbaraglia

If you'd like to help spread the word about palm oil click one of the links below to share this article! 🙌



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