Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis). It can be separated into a wide range of distinct oils with different properties.
This versatility has seen palm oil replace animal and other vegetable oils in a wide variety of products.
Today it is:
- used as a cooking oil
- the main ingredient for most margarine
- used in confectionary, ice cream and ready-to-eat meals
- the base for most liquid detergents, soaps, and shampoos
- the base for lipstick, waxes, and polishes
- used as an industrial lubricant
- used as a biofuel
In addition to its versatility, palm oil is also a very productive crop. The yield (amount of oil produced per hectare per year) is far greater than for other vegetable oils, while production costs are lower. This lower cost is mainly due to low labour costs in the countries in which palm oil is grown.
Originally a subsistence crop
The oil palm tree is native to West Africa, where it was traditionally cultivated as a subsistence crop for food, fibre and medicine.
Originally, trees were interplanted in traditional, small-scale agricultural production systems along with other annual and perennial crops.
Now mainly grown in plantations
Rising demand for vegetable oils since the 1970s has seen oil palm cultivation shift to a large-scale plantations.
Sources: FAO, Clay (2004)
Such plantations have become one of the fastest-growing monocropping plantations in the tropics of Africa, as well as in Asia-Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Much of this expansion has occured in Malaysia and Indonesia. By 2000, these two countries accounted for just over half of the world's total plantation area (then 9.7 million hectares), and Nigeria accounted for just over 30%.
Cultivation continues to expand – with dramatic consequences for biodiversity.