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Introduction to Palm Oil

Palm oil is the world’s most used vegetable oil, and global consumption is rising. The UK Government have announced that they will “work with British trade associations and companies to set out a roadmap to achieve 100% use of sustainable palm oil nationwide". To encourage businesses and procurers to source palm oil from sustainable sources, a number of actions that businesses might undertake are suggested.

About palm oil

Palm oil is a cheap and efficiently produced vegetable oil with many different applications across a range of sectors. The oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), and there are also a variety of uses for the palm kernel oil and palm kernel.

What products contain palm oil?

The use of palm oil is widespread and includes being used as an ingredient in a wide range of foods (including biscuits, bakery products, snacks and ice-cream) and such uses account for 68% of the total UK import of palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is also used in the manufacture of cleaning products and cosmetics, and as a fuel. Animal feed may also contain palm oil and palm kernel meal.

Recent changes to food labelling will make it easier for consumers to identify which products contain palm oil.  Changes to the European Food Information Regulations will mean labels have to identify the specific types of vegetable oils that have been used.  Businesses are already starting to implement the change, and it will be mandatory on all food products from 13 December 2014.  Visit the EC webpage on the European Food Information for Consumers Regulations for more information. 

How much palm oil do we use in the UK?

Defra mapped the UK palm oil supply chain in 2011(using 2009 data) and estimated that in 2009 UK imports comprised

  • 595,300 metric tons of palm oil,
  • 663,300 metric tons palm kernel meal,
  • 48,100 metric tons of palm kernel oil and
  • at least 350,000 metric tons palm oil in finished products.

Over the period 2005-2009, the quantities of palm products imported declined, with 2009 imports around 60% of what they were in 2005. Reasons for this may include changes in commodity prices, food manufacturers actively seeking to reduce saturated fats (e.g. dramatic reductions in palm olein used for crisp frying, and use of palm methyl ester for biodiesel).  

The UK import in 2009 was equivalent to:

  • Approximately 1.2% of global palm oil and palm kernel oil production.
  • Approximately 10% of the global output of palm kernel meal.

The mapping study found that approximately 24% of palm oil consumed in the UK in 2009 was sustainably sourced.  Defra plans to repeat this study annually, starting in 2013. If you would like to comment, input data or otherwise take part, please email cpet@efeca.com

Where is palm oil produced?

Palm oil is produced in the tropics, across South Asia, Africa and South America. Palm oil is native to West Africa, but now 85% of the world’s palm oil production is in Indonesia and Malaysia. For background regional information visit the Sustainable Palm oil Platform (SPP) regional section.  

What are the key issues?

Palm oil production has been linked to deforestation and peatland drainage – with forests being cut down and peatlands destroyed and replaced with new palm plantations. This can have major impacts on biodiversity, climate change and also land rights for local people. The growing global demand for palm oil continues to increase these pressures.

For more background information about the environmental and social impacts, visit the WWF website and ZSL's Sustainable Palm oil Platform (SPP).

Buying sustainably

Whilst there is no single, straightforward, universally-applied definition of what is ‘sustainable palm oil’, efforts have been made to produce palm oil more sustainably and different schemes and approaches have been developed to meet various demands. Many businesses (mainly large multi-nationals) have made commitments to source their palm oil sustainably in future through this mechanism.  For more information on buying sustainably, take a look at the WWF Buyers' Scorecard.  

Building upon this momentum, the Prime Minister, during a visit to Indonesia in April 2012, announced the UK Government would “work with British trade associations and companies to set out a roadmap to achieve 100% use of sustainable palm oil nationwide”. This led to the publication of the UK statement.

Wouldn't it be better to remove palm oil from consumer products altogether? 

Substitution is one option. However, this would shift demand to other vegetable oils and commodity based products, which may:

  • Have different properties,
  • Have other environmental and social impacts,
  • Be more expensive.

What can I do?

We encourage businesses and procurers to take action to source palm oil from sustainable sources.  See Taking Action for more information. 

Contacts for further information

The CPET helpline also provides advice and information on sustainable palm oil for UK businesses and government procurers. For further information please call the CPET helpline on 01305 236 100, or email cpet@efeca.com.

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