• Min Low

Making an Impact: A Case Study of Palm Oil

After the banning of Iceland’s Christmas advert promoting their palm oil free products, Rang-Tan’s story has been viewed more than 13 million times. Apart from the petitions over the ban imposed on the advert, palm oil itself also has also generated much debate.


Palm oil is derived from the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis Jacq) and is characterised by having both an exceptionally high melting point and very high saturation levels, a combination which is rarely found in other vegetable oils. These gives palm oil its versatility for use across many product lines such as:

  • Lipstick: Holds colour well, has a smooth application and virtually no taste

  • Instant Noodles: Used to pre-cook the noodles

  • Soap: Able to remove oil and dirt from hair and skin as well to moisturise

The controversy regarding use of palm oil initially arose in the early 2000s, when campaigns to reduce rainforest destruction gained traction. Palm oil was criticised for heightening the rate of deforestation and loss of biodiversity, the displacement of indigenous populations, and for also contributing to labour rights abuse. With palm oil being the most consumed oil in the world (61.1 million tons in 2015) whose demand is forecasted to grow at 1.7% per year until 2050, these criticisms spurred ill-informed consumers and environmental advocates to seek the boycott of palm oil.

However, the fact is that these environmental losses and community issues which the palm oil industry poses will not disappear just because consumers boycott palm oil products. Manufacturers of such products will only switch to palm oil alternatives like sunflower oil, and carry these problems into the sunflower oil industry.

Furthermore, palm oil is in fact the more effective oil compared to its commonly proposed alternatives - to produce 1 tonne of palm oil, only 0.26 hectares of land is required. This is in comparison to 1.25 hectares to produce 1 tonne of rapeseed oil, 1.43 hectares for sunflower oil and 2 hectares for soybean oil. Increase these numbers to account for global consumption of oil and it is easy to an idea of how significant palm oil is in production - it uses only 10% of land area yet contributes to 35% of all vegetable oils produced.

These are figures that consumers calling for the boycott of palm oil are unaware of, or which are overlooked. Consumers are often presented a one-sided picture of the situation, and are easily riled to support a cause that is marketed as ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’. Understanding the whole production process from farm to shelf, as well as being aware of how the product is produced as compared to other alternatives is hence important in getting a good grasp of the relative impact that the product has on both the environment and society.

In the case of palm oil, sustainable sourcing is the way forward to improving the social and environmental issues that plagues the palm oil debate. This approach is especially important as petitions to boycott the use of palm oil in products give companies little incentive to seek certification for the use of sustainable palm oil in their products, which further encourages these harmful practices. This barely moves society towards a more environmentally friendly and socially impactful future.

Exciting New Developments

At the University of Bath, researchers have successfully cultivated the yeast, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, which has the characteristics of palm oil that are not present in other vegetable oils. The yeast also has the ability to grow on a wide variety of organic feedstock, which presents use for recycling foodwaste to further reduce our impact on the environment.

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go for yeast to replace palm oil usage; the small scale analysis that researchers are doing might not fully capture environmental and practical problems that could arise from commercialisation of the technology. Some questions which require answers include: how to protect the yeast from pests, what is the most sustainable and financially viable culture to produce the yeast on, and whether yeast production could eventually rival the cost of palm oil production.

We Can Make A Difference

As consumers, we hold the most voting power - through spending money on products which are produced in line with our values, we are sending companies a signal of our tastes and preferences. By buying products with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label, we are supporting companies which make the effort to source palm oil that was produced in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Alternatively, products with the Green Palm label indicates products in support of the transition to certified palm oil, where proceeds from Green Palm certificates help growers fund the transition to sustainable palm oil.

Now you have an excuse to get those Cadbury chocolates and krispy kreme doughnuts (100% RSPO Certified)! To find more products that are RSPO certified, check out this list here.