Are You Moving Towards Sustainable Palm Products?

Are You Moving Towards Sustainable Palm Products?

If you use palm products in commerce, manufacture, agriculture or in the home, sooner or later you will have to face up to the question “Are palm products sustainable?”

Where do palm products come from, and where are they used?

Palm trees are grown commercially in tropical countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Columbia.  They are grown primarily for the bunches of palm fruit which are in turn processed to yield palm oil from the flesh, palm kernel oil from the kernel and by-products such as palm kernel meal.  The majority of the oil is consumed as human food after bleaching and deodorising to remove impurities and increase shelf life.  A significant proportion of both oils are further processed to extend the range of food applications.  Most food emulsifiers are based on palm oil.  So palm products end up in margarine, bread, biscuits, cakes, pastry, pies, snack foods, fried foods, sausages, canned meat, icecream, chocolate and other confectionery to name a small selection.

Very large amounts of the oils are used to make oleochemicals.  The latter include soaps and detergents, while recently biodiesel has become a major consumer.  Retail products that contain oleochemicals include laundry and toilet soap, shampoo, cosmetics, shaving foam, dishwashing detergents, disinfectants, other cleaning products and polishes.  By some estimates over 50% of supermarket items contain palm products.

So what’s the problem?

The demand for palm products is growing, and mainly in Indonesia, large tracts of virgin rainforest are being logged, burnt off and converted into palm plantations.  Many of the jungles are peat lands, and the burning of the trees and peat releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, so that Indonesia is the third largest carbon dioxide polluter after the USA and China.  The destruction of rainforests also threatens ecological diversity, and the plight of the orang-utan is the best-known direct outcome of unfettered palm plantation development.  Through greed and corruption the rights of indigenous peoples are ridden over roughshod.  Palm products are environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable.

How does it affect you?

The simple answer is “Someone has to pay!”  How much we pay is variable.  Either a small amount now, or possibly with our lives later on.  Global warming doomsayers predict floods, hurricanes, droughts, famines, pandemic diseases and resource wars if we do nothing.  If you are a company that imports or sells palm products, your reputation as a responsible corporate citizen is on the line.  On the 17th September, Fonterra was in trouble on the front page of the Herald due to Greenpeace protests over palm kernel meal imports.  The Body Shop was linked to the socially dubious development of palm plantations in Columbia in the same Herald issue, in the front section.  Only weeks before this, Cadbury had to beat an embarrassing retreat after using palm kernel oil product in their chocolate bars.  They have promised to remove the palm product partly because of the environmental concerns.

Is sustainable palm oil possible?

To produce sustainably a grower or processor needs to acquire land fairly, use good agricultural practices, treat workers and communities fairly, and care for the environment and biodiversity.  It is not necessary to destroy rainforests to grow palm trees.  Indonesia has over 100,000 hectares of unproductive grassland that could be converted.  Many palm plantations produce under three tonnes of palm oil per hectare per year.  Replacing these spent trees with more productive varieties can almost double the output sustainably.

So what can we do?

In 2002 the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up by producers, manufacturers and non-governmental organisations.  This body now has over 300 members including an impressive list of world-leading producers and processors.  Unfortunately the destruction of rainforests continues and the RSPO is seen as “greenwash” by some.  The RSPO have not been entirely ineffective and since 2008 it has been possible to buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil.  A related organisation called GreenPalm arranges the trade in certificates which is the means for funnelling money to the sustainable producers, and the system of auditing and oversight that is required.  New Zealand companies can buy these certificates – which cost approximately $US10 per tonne – and redeem them when they buy palm oil or palm kernel oil.


Manufacturers and retailers who buy the certificates are allowed to use the GreenPalm logo on their products.  A current UK example is Prep palm oil for food service deep frying operators, and a range of retail cleaning products under the Terra Activ brand is available in Europe.  Consumers can support sustainability by buying products with this logo.


Biologist Volume 56 Number 3 August 2009 (map) (logo)

The writer is with FoodInc food industry consultants and can provide further information.  The writer and Foodinc have no commercial link with GreenPalm.  You can contact us by email at or

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