Where does Palm Oil come from?

Palm oil has been at the centre of several heated debates and discussions in recent years, and wherever we look, we see palm oil. It comes from a family of plants commonly called oil palm trees, native to Africa.

However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the oil palm thrives in tropical environments and its farming is not limited to Africa. In fact, around 85% of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia – although more than 40 other countries also produce it.

 

Palm Oil: an affordable and versatile oil

Palm oil is used in a huge range of products, from snack and sweets to haircare or even skincare products. Ice cream, crisps, chocolate, deodorants, soap or detergents are just a few products containing palm oil. It is also used as a biofuel in many countries and in animal feed.

There’s no denying palm oil’s versatility, however, in the last years, it has been getting a lot of (bad) attention, and some products are now labelled “Palm Oil Free”.

 

Why is palm oil being targeted?

The biggest problem with palm oil is that its production has been, historically, extremely harmful for the environment.

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of palm tree Elaeis guineensis, that can live for 28 to 30 years. However, as trees grew, it became increasingly difficult to harvest the fruits. In times where environmental concerns were less considered, trees were chopped down earlier and repeatedly for new ones to be planted.
Also, given palm oil crops are much more efficient than other vegetable oil crops, other parts of the rainforest were cleared to make way for more palm oil farming. As such, its production has been one of the main contributors for the deforestation of some of the world’s most diverse and rich forests.

Deforestation of tropical forests has a big side-effect on the environment. It releases enormous amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. It is estimated that tropical deforestation accounts for 10 percent of total global warming emissions.

Unfortunately, this is not all. With deforestation comes loss of natural habitats for many species, including some that are already very endangered, such as the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino.

 

fruit of oil palm tree

Palm Oil and the controversy behind it

What makes palm oil so attractive?

Palm oil is an extremely versatile vegetable oil, which has very useful and functional properties. For example, this oil is semi-solid at room temperature, so it is used in spreads like butter or margarine substitutes. It is oxidation-resistant, and for this reason it helps products achieve a longer shelf life. It is also temperature resistant, so widely used for frying. Lastly, palm oil is odourless and colourless. Therefore, it doesn’t modify the look or smell of food products, making it very attractive for the food market.

On the other hand, palm oil crops are very efficient, meaning less inputs are needed for its production, such as soil area, water or fertilisers, when compared to other vegetable oils – coconut, sunflower, soy, etc.

All these reasons make it one of the most used (and demanded) vegetable oils worldwide.

Should we stop using palm oil?

The answer is not immediate. While the mass production of palm oil can be harmful for the environment, tropical fauna and local populations, there are ways of ensuring that palm oil used in the products we consume is not contributing to these issues.

After the backlash to palm oil, NGOs soon realised that, even with all the problems associated to palm oil production, the alternatives also have negative impacts on the environment. Other vegetable oils are also responsible for high greenhouse gases emissions and deforestation, and its production isn’t as efficient.

The answer came in the form of a certification: sustainable palm oil. As such, the best way to tackle this problem is to choose RSPO certified palm oil.
RSPO, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is a non-governmental organization formed in 2004 with the aim of making palm oil farming more sustainable, both for the environment and for people. RSPO certification bans deforestation of tropical areas and promotes conservation of highly biodiverse ecosystems.

Jerónimo Martins stance on Palm Oil

Acknowledging the importance of palm oil as well as the issues related to its production, since 2014 that the Jerónimo Martins’ Group has been mapping palm oil presence on its Private Brand products sold at Pingo Doce, Recheio, Biedronka, Ara and Hebe stores.

To this end, it questions its suppliers about the origin and journey of this and other raw materials, such as soy, paper and wood and beef, throughout the different production stages of a product. This is what experts call traceability.

Jerónimo Martins annually replies to CDP Forests, an international program acting on behalf of investors who wish to understand how organizations are addressing their exposure to forests-related risks and discloses it to the public. In 2018, the Group was distinguished with A- (the highest mark is A) for its palm oil management practices.

Jerónimo Martins Group is a member of RSPO and RTRS – Round Table on Responsible Soy, that promotes the best practices in sustainability on soy production.