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Palm oil trees

Oil palm

Palm oil comes from oil palms! The oil palm is native to West Africa where it has long been an important staple. Today it is the most important oil-producing plant from the tropics; fast growing, the oil can be harvested within five years of planting, and it has an extremely high yield compared with other vegetable oil-producing plants. You can find these towering trees growing as part of the Palm Oil Exhibit in our Rainforest Biome.

Botanical description

  • Scientific name: Elaeis guineensis
  • Family: Arecaceae (palm)

Palm tree: can grow up to 18m tall. Stem: erect and scarred. Leaves: up to 4.5m long, grouped in clusters and in several planes. Flowering structure (inflorescence): up to 30cm long. Fruits: approximately 2.5cm long, ovoid to conical.


  • Palm oil is the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil
  • Many foods, including ice cream, chocolate and crisps, contain palm oil
  • Although 90% of the world’s palm oil is used in food, it is also used in non-edible products such as detergents, cosmetics, plastics and engine oil
  • Indonesia produces the most palm oil worldwide, followed by Malaysia and Nigeria
  • Africa uses what it grows, while the vast plantations in South-East Asia supply the world

The problem

In 2015, the world consumed 62 million tonnes of palm oil. The World Bank predicts that this number will at least double by 2050.

As demand for palm oil increases, so does the pressure for growers to produce more, especially in the humid tropics, where the yield is highest. This has led to destruction of the virgin tropical rainforest to make room for oil palms – and the surrounding wildlife, local people and world's climate are suffering. 

Through loss of habitat, the orangutan, Asian elephant, tiger, gorilla and buffalo are all threatened (to name but a few). In 2015, the Sumatran rhinoceros was declared extinct in the wild due to habitat loss through oil palm expansion in Malaysia (IUCN). Loss of rainforest can also violate the land rights of rainforest peoples and lead to water, food and natural medicine insecurity.

Why don’t we just stop using palm oil?

Nearly half of all oil palm cultivation is in the hands of smallholders and their livelihoods depend on the industry; it is a means of employment and a route out of poverty in areas of the world that desperately need it. 

Using other oils may shift the problems elsewhere.

So, what to do?

RSPO certifies sustainable palm oil logo

Sustainably-produced palm oil may offer a solution.

Sustainable palm oil:

  • Does not contribute to deforestation
  • Involves planting on degraded land
  • Involves reduced use of pesticides
  • Promotes biodiversity
  • Safeguards social interests, communities and workers
  • Must be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
  • Can be identified by the RSPO logo

How can I drive change?

As a consumer, you have the power to:

  • Check whether a product contains palm oil. But look closely, palm oil can be labelled as many things: Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearin, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmitoyl Alcohol.
  • Look for the RSPO logo if palm oil is included
  • Avoid buying products that contain palm oil if they don't have the RSPO logo
  • Look for alternative (organic where possible) oils such as rapeseed and sunflower
  • Write to manufacturers and demand change
  • Support projects working to make a difference

For over a decade, we have phased out products containing unsustainable palm oil from all areas at the Eden Project. We now only use or sell products that contain RSPO-certified palm oil.

Exhibit in our Biome

Our Palm Oil Exhibit in the Rainforest Biome  sits among real examples of oil palms growing in the rainforest. Built in partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol, it explores the effects the production of palm oil has on the world and how we can work towards producing it more sustainably.



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