The oil palm
Palm oil is produced from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Originally native to West Africa, oil palms are now grown in almost all tropical regions of the world. The principal growing areas are Indonesia and Malaysia, but commercial cultivation is also increasing in South America and Africa.
From their third year oil palms produce fruits which grow in large, dense clusters (photo 1). The yield stabilises after about four to six years, then production declines slowly from the 21st year onwards, and the old palms are replaced with new ones. A mature oil palm produces clusters of fruit of approximately 20 kg around fifteen times a year. This high productivity, besides other properties of palm oil and palm kernel oil useful to industry, has now resulted in the oil palm becoming the most successful of all oil plants. Of the oil plants the oil palm has by far the highest yield, at an average of 3.69 tonnes per hectare (t/ha); its yield is five times higher than that of soya (0.77 t/ha), four times higher than sunflowers (0.86 t/ha) and three times higher than rapeseed (1.33 t/ha).
Two different oils can be obtained from the fruit of the oil palm: palm oil from the flesh of the fruit and palm kernel oil, in smaller quantities, from the kernels of the fruit.
Palm oil is extracted from the yellowish-orange flesh of the fruit (photo 2, source: RSPO). The oil content of the fruit is at its highest (approx. 45-50%) when the first fruits come away from the bunches. This is also the time to harvest them.
Palm oil combines more positive properties than any other vegetable fat: it has a solid consistency at room temperature, which means that it does not need to be solidified with chemicals; it is flavourless; it is particularly stable at high temperatures; it keeps for a very long time; and it makes the food industry's finished products particularly easy to spread. These properties explain why palm oil is used in so many products. It is found mainly in margarine, baked goods, convenience foods and confectionery, but is also used in products such as candles and cosmetics.
In 2013 global production of palm oil amounted to around 58 million tonnes. Indonesia and Malaysia alone produced 50 million tonnes, 85% of the palm oil on the global market (see table).
The countries with the highest rates of palm oil consumption are India (9.1 million tonnes), Indonesia (8.5 million tonnes) and China (6.58 million tonnes). In these countries palm oil is traditionally used mainly for frying and cooking. The EU is the fourth largest consumer of palm oil, using 5.67 million tonnes in 2013, of which around 2.5 million tonnes was for food production. Approximately 5-10% of the palm oil produced worldwide is used as biofuel, with the remaining 40% in cosmetics, detergents, candles, and as industrial lubricants. Germany's consumption of palm oil is around 1.3 million tonnes per year, representing approximately 2% of global production.
Production of palm oil in Million Tonnes per year*
*Source: USDA, 2013
Palm kernel oil
Oil is also manufactured from the kernels of the oil palm fruits. Palm kernel oil is solid at room temperature and is therefore favoured for use in chocolate and the confectionery industry. In addition palm kernel oil is used as a solid component in the manufacture of margarine and especially in cosmetics such as skin cream and lipstick. Tensides are also manufactured from palm kernel oil: these active detergents are present in shampoos, shower gels and laundry and cleaning products.
Global production of palm kernel oil amounts to around 4 million tonnes a year, so is much less significant than palm oil. However, because of its particular properties, palm kernel oil is highly valued by the cosmetic and detergent industries and is in great demand.
Germany's consumption of palm kernel oil is around 0.33 million tonnes a year (approximately 8% of the volume traded worldwide).(Source: WWF)