It's in so much of what we eat yet most of us know very little about it.
Palm oil has become an incredibly important part of our daily lives yet it is unlikely many people even know where it comes from or how it is made. (It’s derived from the crushed nut/fruit of oil palm trees).
The reason it matters so much today is threefold. One, it's now an ingredient in around one-third of all packaged food we eat - from bread and biscuits to soap and shampoo - often listed as 'vegetable oil' hence the frequent confusion amongst consumers. A UK study found that large quantities of a by-product of palm oil are also fed to our pets and farm animals.
Two, it is a tropical agricultural crop, growing best in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia with favourable climate and soils but also some of the world's last tropical rainforests.
The rush to grow oil palm to feed consumers in Asia, Europe and the US, has seen millions of hectares of rainforest chopped down to make way for plantations. More than half of oil palm expansion since 1990 has occurred at the expense of tropical forests.
Rich in biodiversity, these forests are home to many endangered species, of which the orang-utan is merely the most well known.
Lastly, it is highly successful and profitable for plantation owners, multinationals and the countries involved, producing twice the amount of oil of the next most productive crops, Brazil nut and jathropa. One hectare of oil palm is worth around $2,000 a year.
Globally, the industry’s earnings are measured in the billions.
As well its importance in food, farming and cosmetics, it is also being touted as a biofuel to power our planes, buses and cars. As such, demand for the oil is only expected to continue upwards.
Loss of unique wildlife
The problem for conservationists is that this new demand is fuelling the conversion of the world's dwindling amounts of biodiverse-rich rainforest into profitable oil palm plantations.
An estimated 85 per cent of the rainforest's biodiversity - amphibians, birds, fish, insects, mammmals and plants - is lost during conversion to oil palm plantations.
In Indonesia, which along with Malaysia accounts for almost 90 per cent of global production, the land converted to growing oil palm has increased by almost 400 per cent in the past decade.
On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the vast majority of the lowland forest, favoured by palm oil companies, has already been lost to plantations. The fear is that the forests on the island of Borneo, still relatively untouched, will soon go the same way.
Although campaign groups like Greenpeace have focused on the orang-utan, a wide variety of mammals, insects, birds and soil micro organisms - all part of the unique forest ecosystem - are lost during conversion.
A WWF study estimated there were 80 mammal species in Malaysia’s primary forests, just over 30 in its logged forests and only 11 or 12 in its oil palm plantations. Species such as Borneo Gibbons, which rely on the high canopy of tropical forests, are known to come off worst with palm trees reaching no more than 10-20 metres in height at full growth.
With more plantations planned in both Indonesia and the emerging markets of Brazil and Central Africa, conservationists are fighting on two fronts to stop deforestation and the loss of forested land and find ways to minimise the impact.
Change of tactics
Much of the attention in recent years has tended to focus on preventing deforestation, with campaigners pressurising multinationals like Nestle and Unilever into cutting off palm oil suppliers found to be taking over rainforests.
However, with concessions (government permission to an area of land) still being granted to palm oil companies for forested land rich in biodiversity, some conservationists are arguing for a change of tactics.
Rather than just attacking the industry, they want to encourage them to become more wildlife-friendly by preserving patches of forest within their plantations.
Fragments of forest are often left because of legal requirements to leave strips of land near areas such as rivers, or because the land is unsuitable for planting oil palm, for example on steep land. More recently, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certifying body for more sustainable palm oil producers, has also provided companies with an incentive to conserve patches of forest within their plantations.
Although the maximum size of a concession is 20,000 hectares in countries like Indonesia, the big producers will often establish multiple companies adjacent to each other. Without fragments these vast areas of oil palm monoculture essentially become 'biological deserts' stretching as far as 100 kilometres.
Sophie Persey, a biodiversity and oil palm expert from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), argues some of the fragments could provide an important lifeline for forest animals that may otherwise be unable to survive in vast expanses of oil palm monoculture.
In effect, the patches of forest could act as 'wildlife corridors' to help the animals move between larger continuous areas of forest that they ultimately depend on for survival.
A survey of the biodiversity found within fragments of rainforest surrounded by an oil palm plantation, published last year, found numerous important mammal species including the agile gibbon, banded langur, a rare species of bat and the Ridley's leaf-nosed bat.
However, there are still doubts about how the population density compares with large-scale, contiguous forest and whether such species could survive in the fragments in the long-term.
A separate study published by Dr David Edwards, from James Cook University, found that very few IUCN Red Listed bird species survived in small fragments and that the bird communities found were not much different from oil palm plantations.
As such, he concluded that: 'any investment in the retention of fragments would be better directed toward the protection of contiguous (continuous) forest'.
As well as providing a potential habitat for wildlife, the fragments may be providing a variety of valuable ecosystem services for oil palm plantations including; pest control (with bird species preying on insects), pollination and erosion/flood prevention.
But Dr Edwards says the benefits of pest control is likely to be minimal at best and perhaps even negative, with a spillover of pests from the forests to the plantations. As a result they may actually cost the plantation owners money in lost harvest.
‘It appears very unlikely that the retention of forest patches on commercially viable land is going to provide sufficient economic benefits to offset the lost yield of oil palm [that would otherwise be grown there].’
Far more biodiversity, he says, could be protected by investing the profits oil palm companies make from using the fragments in conserving bigger areas of continuous forests. In effect, companies would be required to offset their damage, an idea known as bio-offsetting.
Benefits to palm oil companies
With many fragments already left voluntarily by oil palm companies on slopes that are too steep to plant, Dr Edwards worries that by attempting to herald them, conservationists are inadvertently 'greening' the oil palm industry, without the companies having to make any real concessions to protecting biodiversity.
'Palm oil and wildlife may be able to co-exist in some small way [in forest fragments] but it is still a dramatic loss of species compared to continuous rainforest,' he concludes.
Other conservationists continue to argue for maintaining fragments.
Dr Rob Ewers, is coordinating the SAFE project, a ten-year experiment assessing the benefits to wildlife and biodiversity of forest fragments in the heavily developed oil palm landscape of Sabah, the Malaysian region of Borneo.
He says as long as oil palm companies are being given land with fragments of forest, it makes sense to encourage them to conserve the fragments and the wildlife within them.
‘If the decision is between keeping contiguous forest or fragments then contiguous is likely to be better. But most of these decisions aren’t of that nature – they’re about whether to keep fragments on a plantation or convert them to oil palm. And in that case it’s a simple answer – any piece of forest is better than no forest.
‘Regardless of their size, fragments still retain a lot more forest species than plantation, so they have a biodiversity value that is worth retaining,’ says Dr Ewers.
What’s more, getting oil palm companies to invest landscape away from their plantation may be difficult to organise and enforce says Sophie Persey, from ZSL.
'Even if the company was willing to invest in conserving a large area of contiguous forest instead of these fragments that remain within their own concession, at a landscape level these areas may become isolated from each other by huge expanses of oil palm monoculture that are impenetrable to forest specialist species,' she explains.
Consumer pressure working
Although many doubt the sincerity of oil palm plantation owners, others say the industry is becoming more open to conservation issues – perhaps far more than comparable arable farmers in northern Europe.
‘If you look at the oil palm industry in Malaysia they have quite sophisticated views on biodiversity,’ says Dr Ed Turner, who works on the SAFE project and is based on the island of Borneo. ‘They don’t crop spray which has disastrous results for plants and wildlife instead they use natural predators – they’ve had the experience of even larger outbreaks of predators a few months after spraying.’
Perhaps most importantly, and significantly for conservationists trying to preserve the last remaining tropical rainforests across Borneo and the rest of South-East Asia, companies are also concerned about the poor international image of the palm oil industry. And are, in some cases, actively trying to find ways to improve their practices.
While significant doubts still remain about making oil palm plantations more ‘wildlife-friendly’, it is likely to be this consumer-led pressure that is the best hope for protecting the unique biodiversity within rainforests.
Palm oil giants target Africa in 'land grab' following Indonesia deforestation ban
Indonesia's move to bring in a two-year moratorium on new palm oil plantations to protect its remaining rainforests has seen agribusiness giants switch expansion plans to Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia
Cargill sticks with rainforest-destroying palm oil supplier
US food giant refuses to stop buying palm oil from Sinar Mas group as Burger King joins Nestle and others in criticising its illegal activities
World's largest ecological experiment to examine impact of oil palm plantations
Ten-year project will look at whether setting-aside natural forests within oil palm plantations can save threatened species such as the Orang-utan, Pygmy Elephant and Clouded Leopard
Palm oil giant Sinar Mas admits breaking law by clearing peatland
Indonesia's largest palm oil and pulp company started clearing land for palm oil plantations before it had received permits or made conservation assessments
European airlines to start controversial biofuel-powered flights
The use of plant-based fuels for flights, backed by the EU, could contribute to higher food prices and increased greenhouse gas emissions