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FACTBOX - The world's most controversial vegetable oil

by Michael Taylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 29 March 2018 01:01 GMT

Red palm oil bottles are seen in an Asian supermarket in this illustration photo taken in a supermaket in Nice, France, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

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Some European nations are shifting to use sustainable palm oil amid concern over environmental impacts

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, March 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Over the last decade, pressure from consumers and green groups has pushed big companies that produce, trade or buy palm oil to tackle labour abuses on plantations and commit to ending deforestation that is contributing to climate change.

Yet the small farmers who grow close to half the fruit that yields the edible oil in major suppliers Malaysia and Indonesia have been largely left out of efforts to make the industry greener and more ethical, industry officials say.

Here are some facts about palm oil and the debate around it:

* Palm oil has been consumed as a foodstuff for as long as 5,000 years.

* The oil palm tree originates from West Africa where it grows in the wild. Palms can grow taller than 60 feet (18.3 m).

* Oil palms were introduced to Malaysia by the British in the early 1870s as an ornamental plant.

* Oil palms start bearing fruit about 30 months after being planted, and are productive for the next 20 to 30 years.

* Palm oil is used in a wide range of food and household products, from biscuits, ice-cream and chocolate spreads to soaps and cosmetics, as well as in biofuels.

* India, China, Indonesia and Europe are the main consumers of palm oil.

* Palm trees produce four to 10 times more oil than other vegetable oil crops per unit of cultivated land.

* Global palm oil production was estimated to be about 65 million tonnes in 2017.

* Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 90 percent of the world's palm oil supplies. Other growing nations include Thailand, Ecuador, Nigeria and Ghana.

* About 40 percent, or 5.6 million hectares, of the total area of land planted with oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia is owned by smallholders.

* Across Indonesia and Malaysia, 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production.

* Palm oil output in the top-two producing nations was forecast to climb to new highs this year as it recovered from a 2015 El Nino weather pattern, pushing average prices for 2018 down by 7 percent from 2017 to $676.30 a tonne, according to a Reuters poll in January.

* In some regions, the clearance of land for oil palm cultivation has caused - and continues to cause - deforestation, despite pledges by big companies to end it.

* The palm oil industry has been blamed by activists for slash-and-burn forest clearing that causes an annual haze across parts of Southeast Asia.

* The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an industry body of consumers, green groups and plantation firms that aims to promote the use of certified sustainable palm oil products, and is backed by many major European palm oil buyers.

* Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain have either already met or are on track to deliver on a commitment to use 100-percent sustainable certified palm oil by 2020.

* An estimated 60 percent of palm oil used for food in Europe in 2016 was certified sustainable palm oil.

* Europe's lawmakers approved draft measures earlier this year to reform the EU power market and cut energy consumption to meet more ambitious climate change goals. The plan includes a ban on the use of palm oil in motor fuels from 2021.

* Italian confectionery firm Ferrero, which makes hazelnut and chocolate spread Nutella, has publicly defended palm oil after European authorities listed the oil as a cancer risk.

Sources: RSPO, Malaysian Palm Oil Council, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, Reuters

(Reporting by Michael Taylor, Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

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