Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil – a joint commitment to sustainability

Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil

The Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil currently has 51 members, including companies, non-governmental organisations, associations, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The aim of FONAP is to boost significantly the proportion of sustainably produced palm oil on the German, Austrian and Swiss markets and to improve existing standards and certification schemes.

The members of FONAP have publicly committed to using only sustainably produced palm and palm kernel oil in their products. They also undertake to ensure the traceability of the palm oil they use and to comply with certain add-on criteria that are not yet covered by the certification systems.

FONAP and its members are sending out a clear message to producer countries, certification systems and the general public that companies in Germany take their responsibilities in the global supply chain seriously and are striving to improve social, economic and environmental conditions in the producer countries. At the same time, increased demand for certified sustainable palm oil and the efforts to make traceability and add-on criteria mandatory lead in the long term to improved and sustainable practices in the palm oil sector.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is the most widely used plant oil in the world. Palm fruit oil, better known as palm oil, is obtained from the flesh of the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). The palm fruit resembles an olive: it has a hard kernel surrounded by a fleshy, creamy pericarp. Both the flesh and the kernel are rich in oil, but they are processed separately. Its high beta-carotene content gives the fruit a reddish colour. To produce palm oil the fruit – which has a fat content of up to 50 per cent – is sterilised to deactivate enzymes and then pressed. This yields crude palm oil (CPO). To obtain palm kernel oil, the kernels are dried, partly crushed and then pressed. Like coconut oil, palm kernel oil is a lauric oil, which means that it contains a large proportion (up to 80 per cent) of lauric acid – a saturated fatty acid – in bound form. Palm kernel oil is solid at room temperature.

The oil palm, which was originally native to Africa, is now grown in almost all the tropical regions of the world. The trees can grow to a height of 30 metres. Once the tree is two years old, it produces clusters of fruit in the leaf axils. The adult oil palm produces bunches of fruit weighing around 20 kg about 15 times a year. 

Oil palms occupy a smaller proportion of all the land that is used for oil and fat production than any other oil fruit. At the same time, it accounts for the largest proportion of worldwide oil production – around 32 per cent. Sunflowers, coconut and soybeans all have a yield per hectare that is on average just one-third that of palm oil.

0,52 t/ha

0,77 t/ha

0,86 t/ha

1,33 t/ha

3,69 t/ha

Once the oil palm is two years old, it starts to produce large, dense clusters of fruit. After four to six years the yield stabilises, and when the tree is about twenty years old its productivity gradually declines. 




decrease of


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (2020), global production of palm oil and palm kernel oil in 2019 totalled around 74 million tonnes. The main growing areas are in Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce about 84 percent of the world’s palm oil. In Indonesia alone, oil palms cover 12 million hectares of land – an area three times the size of Switzerland (Index Mundi, 2020).

Most palm oil is consumed by Indonesia (approx. 20 percent of world production), India (12.7 percent), the EU (8.8 percent) and China (9.5 percent). The consumption of palm oil in Germany is about 1.1 million tonnes per year, which corresponds to about 1.6 percent of the world production of palm oil. Almost half of this goes into biofuels, electricity and heat. The remaining percent is used in food, cosmetic products, detergents, candles or as lubricants in industry.

Use of palm oil and palm kern oil in Germany in 2019

Palm oil has a number of useful properties: it is neutral in taste, stable when heated, and has a long shelf life. It is therefore used for food and in the manufacture of candles, cosmetics, soaps and detergents. It is difficult to find substitutes for palm oil. Oil is also obtained from the kernels of the oil palm fruit. Palm kernel oil is used mainly in the confectionery industry but it is also found in many cosmetics and detergents. Shampoos, soaps and detergents contain substances known as tensides that are derived from palm kernel oil. Global production of palm kernel oil in 2014 totalled around 6.5 million tonnes. About eight per cent of the total is bought by Germany.

Challenges and problems

Because demand for palm oil is so strong, the amount of land given over to oil palm cultivation has increased more than tenfold since 1985. Oil palm plantations now cover 23 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. And the expansion continues. Indonesia alone is planning to extend the area under oil palm cultivation to 20 million hectares by 2025; half of this will be on Borneo. Because oil palms grow only in a tropical climate, large areas of rainforest are felled to make way for palms – with greenhouse gases being released as a result of slash-and-burn. In 2019 this led to devastating forest fires. Biodiversity also suffers; the orang-utan, the Sumatran tiger and the Javan rhinoceros have all been pushed to the verge of extinction. In addition, oil palm cultivation is often the cause of conflict between local people and large companies over land rights and usage rights. Working conditions on the plantations are questionable in terms of respect for human rights, with workers being underpaid. Many of the workers on the palm oil plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia are migrants from the poorest countries of the region, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, who have been driven by poverty to seek work away from home. 

Oil palms grow only in a tropical climate. This means that they are in direct competition with areas of rainforest, and that palm oil production is a major contributor to species extinction. The orang-utan and many other species are under threat as a result of rainforest destruction. For example, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that the constant fragmentation and destruction of virgin forest for the creation of plantations is having disastrous consequences for bats. Oil palm cultivation is diminishing both the diversity of species and the genetic diversity within a species (Ecology Letters 2013).

Rainforest destruction also increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To make way for palm oil plantations, the forest is often cleared by slash-and-burn. Oil palms are frequently planted on peatland, which releases particularly large quantities of carbon dioxide when it is burned. NASA experts calculate that between August and October 2015 alone, these fires released up to 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – a quantity higher than the equivalent to the annual emissions of Germany. As a result, Indonesia is among the 10 biggest emissions producers worldwide. Slash-and-burn practices are also harmful to health. In 2015 the smog that was created by the burning of the Indonesian rainforest was so thick that warnings of dangerous levels of air pollution were issued in Malaysia and Singapore. In November of that year, for example, the fires meant that the amount of particulate matter in the air in the Thai city of Songkhla was 365 micrograms per cubic metre – far in excess of the EU limit of 50 micrograms.

Reports from the plantation areas – especially in Indonesia – reveal that palm oil production often involves large-scale violation of human rights in the form of poor working conditions, social injustice and conflicts over land. Plantation workers and their families frequently live on the palm oil plantations, with no contact with life in the outside world. Indigenous peoples are often affected by oil palm cultivation: they may be evicted from their land and deprived of their livelihood. According to the Indonesian human rights commission, Komnas HAM, around 30 per cent of the 5,000 violations of human rights that were reported in Indonesia in 2010 were connected with the cultivation of palm oil.

Why is palm oil important despite its drawbacks?

Despite this, a ban on the production of palm oil is not a viable solution. Oil palms occupy the smallest proportion of all the land that is used for oil and fat production while at the same time accounting for the largest proportion of worldwide vegetable oil production – 36 per cent (USDA, 2020). Sunflowers, coconut and soybeans all have a yield per hectare that is on average just one-third that of palm oil. Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would therefore not have the required effect, but would merely displace the problem and in some cases even make it worse. For example, soybeans and coconut grow in the same sensitive regions or in ecologically similar ones. Growing them would need more land; more greenhouse gas would be produced and more species would be put at risk. And the most important European vegetable oil, rape oil, would not be able to meet the rising global demand for plant-based oils. 

The high land efficiency of oil palms means that they have an important part to play in meeting the rising global demand for vegetable oils. And the oil palm is not only the world’s highest-yielding oil plant – it is also the only crop that yields two different oils that are useful to industry.

The production of palm oil is important to the economies of producer countries. The international trade in palm oil is a key source of revenue that can make an important contribution to economic growth. In addition, the non-mechanised harvesting of the palm fruit, which can be performed about 15 times a year, creates large numbers of jobs – many of them in rural and structurally weak regions. 

20 Working days

4 t palm oil per hectare and year
A fruit cluster consists of about 1,500 individual fruits and weighs 15-25 kg.

Solutions and objectives

Oil palms are grown both on large plantations and on small family farms. Achieving the highest possible yield with the minimum detriment to nature is the challenge of sustainable cultivation. Because of the growing global demand for palm oil, more and more land is being converted to palm oil cultivation. Steps must be taken to ensure that this cultivation is sustainable and is carried out with respect for people and the environment in the countries and regions that are among the most biodiverse in the world.

The destruction of the rainforest is a problem that must be taken seriously and brought under control. As part of the search for a solution to the pressing problems and in response to international criticism of practices in the palm oil industry, various sustainability standards that involve certifying the production and use of sustainable palm oil have been set up in recent years. The certification systems include the first and most widely used scheme, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), as well as others such as the Rainforest Alliance, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), and International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC).


Certification systems alone cannot solve the problems in the palm oil sector. The existing standards can be considered adequate in that they define minimum criteria for sustainable palm oil production.

These minimum standards include:

  • No clearance of forest areas of high conservation value to make way for new plantations
  • Environmentally sound production
  • Respect for the rights of local communities
  • Respect for workers’ rights

Nevertheless, all the certification schemes are in need of improvement, particularly with regard to transparency and specific requirements. The Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil and its members are therefore calling for further improvements, including:

  • A ban on plantations on peatlands and other carbon-rich land
  • A ban on the use of highly hazardous pesticides and paraquat
  • The application of strict reduction targets for greenhouse gases
  • A guarantee that, when certified palm oil mills purchase non-certified raw goods, these are obtained exclusively from legal cultivation
  • More transparency in complaints procedures

Informing and networking – good reasons to join

Bringing about sustainable change in palm oil cultivation requires concerted action on the part of all stakeholders. FONAP is therefore not just an important dialogue platform. The Forum’s members also work together to change the impacts of conventional palm oil cultivation. Their activities include:

  • Devising viable schemes to ensure that only certified palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm oil derivatives and fractions are supplied to and used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
  • Preparing and distributing information on all aspects of sustainable palm oil production
  • Drawing up proposals for improvement and refinement of the existing certification schemes.
  • Networking with other initiatives and with interested companies and non-governmental organisations in Europe with the aim of working together on issues relating to the sustainable cultivation of palm oil.

Joining the Forum has many benefits for interested companies, NGOs and associations. Members have access to information on best practices and to a wealth of knowledge and experience. FONAP regularly runs training sessions and seminars for its members and it can provide information on preparing for certification. In addition, small and medium-sized companies have access to FONAP’s guidelines on the procurement of certified palm oil.




Your direct contact

Secretariat of the Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil
c/o GIZ GmbH, Andreas Knoell
Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 32+36, D-53113 Bonn

Telephone: +49 228 4460-3687


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