Instant expert

Palm oil

It's used in everything from cosmetics to snack foods - so what's the deal with palm oil?

Palm Oil plantation

Credit: Wikimedia / Achmad Rabin Taim

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What is palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit pulp and kernels of one type of oil palm tree, an African species (Elaeis guineensis).

About 40 million tonnes is produced each year, with 86 per cent originating from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The rest is produced in Central America and regions of Africa.

That's a lot of oil! What's it used for?

The global market for palm oil is huge and that's because it is handy stuff.

It can be used in everything from your favourite foods, including biscuits, chips and ice cream, to household cleaning products, toiletries (including toothpaste) and cosmetics - even many organic ones.

Palm oil is also popular with the biofuel industry.

In the last 10 years, demand has seen the area occupied by palm oil plantations more than double.

Where do they find the land for producing it all?

Land once occupied by rich rainforests is often cleared to make way for new plantations.

For each year between 2000 and 2005, Indonesia lost about two million hectares to the industry. And according to Friends of the Earth, 86 per cent of all deforestation in Malaysia between 1995 and 2000 was attributed oil palm expansion.

That can't be good!

Indeed. Many of the old-growth forests cleared for palm oil production sit atop peat bogs, which are among the world's most concentrated stores of carbon.

As an area is felled, drained and often burnt in preparation, the peat dries and decomposes, freeing this carbon.

According to Greenpeace, almost two billion tonnes of climate change-accelerating greenhouse gases are released from this process of peatland conversion every year - and that's in Indonesia alone.

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