Palm Oil and Politics

There are some cosmetics (and food) ingredients that invoke passionate reactions from people. In recent years, several have been spotlighted, inspiring protest groups, lobbyists, and media campaigns.

Today, we're going to take a look at the politics of palm oil production.

Palm Oil or Palm Kernel Oil?

The fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis, Elaeis oleifera or Attalea maripa) is used for 2 different oils. Palm oil is made from the fruit, while palm kernel oil is made from the kernel. Both oils have multiple uses, but the higher content of lauric fatty acids in palm kernel oil makes it a preferred choice for soaps and personal care products.

Creating Awareness

As is often the case with 'awareness campaigns', it's all about maximizing the message. This is optimally achieved by using methods similar to advertising or political campaigns – a cleverly crafted catch phrase paired with just the right graphic has a much better chance of going viral than an essay or report.

Sometimes the arguments are valid, but sometimes they are exaggerated to the point of barely approaching the truth.

It can be hard to differentiate.

One thing is certain: if logic, facts, and deliberation are completely left out of the equation, it is difficult – if not impossible – to find a solution to any situation regardless of how much 'awareness' there is on the subject.

The Palm Oil Protest

The anti-palm-oil folks will tell you that palm oil production is destroying the natural habitat of orangutans, poisoning people, and raping the planet. In some areas, they have so successfully vilified palm oil that consumers will confess to feeling guilty about buying anything containing palm oil.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not dismissing this issue – there are valid points that deserve consideration.

What irks me is the way the palm oil protesters are marketing their viewpoint. It's far too easy to sell fear.

Arriving at a viable solution takes a lot more thought and commitment than 'refusing to buy anything with palm oil'.

It's simply not that cut and dry.

A Few Palm Oil Facts

Palm oil production uses only 5% of the worlds oil-producing land area, yet yields 34% of the worlds vegetable oil. That's nearly 6 times more per hectare than the next highest yielding vegetable oil: rapeseed.

Just for comparison:

  • Rapeseed produces 3/4 of a ton of oil from 1 hectare of land 
  • Palm produces over 4 tons of oil from 1 hectare of land

So What If...

If we were to replace palm oil with the other major oil-producing plants (rapeseed, cottonseed, coconut, soybean, sunflower, peanut), the amount of land it would take to grow and harvest the same yield would cause other environmental concerns.

Consider rapeseed – the second highest yielding oil-producing plant – which requires more use of pesticides than palm oil production. Now, multiply the necessary crop growing land area by 6 times and don't forget the additional pesticides.

Hmmm - that could be a problem, couldn't it?

Let's try to look at the bigger picture before we throw palm oil production in the dumpster, shall we?

My (main) Inspiration For This Post

If you're interested in reading more on this subject by a cosmetics scientist who does her darndest to look at the bigger picture, I can recommend the following articles by Amanda Fox at her blog, Realize Beauty
Let's not boycott palm oil
Why boycotting palm oil is as shortsighted as me without my glasses on.
The politics of feed stock – in search of a palm free cosmetic

More Related Links

RSPO: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
How successful is RSPO palm oil certification? (article in The Guardian)

Do Tell

Do you look for palm oil free products?

Photo of palm oil production from Wikipedia


Rikke said…
Thank you for a very informative and enlightening post.

Kh Rikke
LisaLise said…
Thank you Rikke! This could have been a very very long post... there was so much information!
Zan said…
Hi Lise!

Thanks for this very informative post. I'm from Malaysia which is one of the major palm oil producer and I have been trying so hard to explain to people about the benefits of palm oil compared to other types of plant oil. Not only oil palm being the highest yielding oil crop but the waste from palm oil milling can be used to generate clean renewable energy, which will reduce the usage of fossil fuel.

Sorry for my long ramblings. Have a great day! :)

LisaLise said…
HI Zan . thanks so much for this input! It's great to hear from someone so close to the source... can you tell me if there is a lot of debate about this in Malaysia? I'd love to hear more- :)
Zan said…
Hi Lise,

Sorry for the late reply. Been busy with my studies lately.
There's not much debate on palm oil in my country as everyone is happy with the palm oil industry in Malaysia. Palm oil industry is the major economic precursor for my country and it provides many job opportunities for local people. My country has imposed zero-burning oil palm plantation technique to reduce and eliminate air pollution issue.

As for the issue on wildlife being endangered as the forest are being cleared, actually for new oil palm plantation, they are using the land that was previously used to plant other crops such as cocoa and rubber tree. Thus, there not much deforestation happening. Malaysia still retain more than 50% of its total land area in forest form. Apart from that, we have a large orang utan sanctuary that helps to rehabilitate orphanage orang utan.

From my reading and understanding, if we substitute palm oil completely for other plant oil such as soybean oil, the land use to yield the oil would be massive and more forest will be harmed and thus lead to more environmental impacts.

Again, sorry for the long comment. I hope people will open up their mind and read more on the palm oil issue so that no misunderstanding will happen :)

LisaLise said…
Hi Zan - thank you so much for this input. I find it interesting that this kind of information doesn't seem to be making the press on this side of the world. It sounds to me like there is a lot of awareness in Malaysia and that positive steps are being taken to maximize the planet-friendliness of palm oil production. Thanks again for your comment!
Zan said…
Hi Lise!

No worries at all. Not all information available worldwide I guess, as I'm currently doing my postgraduate studies in Australia in Environmental Management and I'm surprised that they didn't get this bit of information on palm oil. I'm happy that I can give some insight to you.

Anna said…
Hi Lise, this post is a little old but just found it. I live in Ecuador and we have the palm oil industry a very important one, I get so disappointed every time people start to discuss about this matter, because for us is almost the same as Zan explained, and we don´t have orang-utans in this country, so this upsets me to read how all palm oil is put in the same basket. I love palm oil for soaps, cosmetics and for cooking, far much better and healthier than lots of seed oils. I´m glad to have the opportunity to speak up for this. Thank you for giving your point of view, which I find very well informed.
LisaLise said…
HI Anna - thank you for your input. I know what you mean.. some times the marketing of an idea buries too many of the facts to where the message can be considered information. I shop for and use palm oil made by sustainable production in many of my products. The fact that efforts are being made to create a worldwide sustainable palm oil production is encouraging.