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Palm oil trees

Oil palm

Oil palms are the most important oil-producing plants of the tropics; fast growing, they yield a crop within five years. You can find these towering trees growing as part of the Oil Palm Exhibit in our Rainforest Biome.

Botanical description

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

Palm tree 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.

Facts

  • The oil palm is second only to the soybean in terms of world use as a vegetable oil. Many foods, including ice cream, chocolate and crisps, have palm oil as an ingredient. Although 90% of the world’s palm oil is used in food, other uses include soaps, shampoo, lipstick and engine oil.
  • Africa uses what it grows, while the vast plantations in South-East Asia supply the world. As our demand increases, so does the march into virgin land. Palm oil production is threatening rainforests as more and more land is being cleared for plantations. Rapid and dramatic changes are needed in the industry to stop the devastation. There is a movement to encourage the planting of oil palms on degraded land rather than clearing primary rainforest. It has been suggested that labelling schemes are needed to identify products that use sustainably produced palm oil.

The problem

Palm oil is the most widely consumed oil in the world – it's in everything from chocolate to pesticides. The world consumed 62 million tonnes in 2015. And by 2050, scientists reckon we'll have tripled our current use.

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 tropical rainforest to make room for oil palms – and the surrounding wildlife and world's climate are suffering.

What to do?

  • Avoid products containing palm oil, sometimes disguised as ‘vegetable oil’.
  • Look for alternative oils, explicitly labelled as for example sunflower oil or rapeseed oil.
  • If you can’t find an alternative product without palm oil, look for the RSPO label indicating that the palm oil is sustainably sourced. Certain plantations can get certification if they protect existing forest, improve diversity on plantations, and protect and enhance livelihoods. The Oil Palm is native to West Africa where it has long been an important staple.
  • Write to manufacturers and demand change. Ask questions about palm oil. As consumers we do have power to affect change.
  • For over a decade Eden has phased out products containing palm oil from all areas. A few items remain where we haven’t yet found a substitute or a supplier providing an alternative. In those instances, the products need to demonstrate RSPO certified palm oil.

Exhibit in our Biome

In our exhibit in the Rainforest Biome, which has been built in partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol, we explore the effects the production of palm oil has on the world and how we can work towards producing it more sustainably.

The exhibit, which sits among real examples of oil palms growing in the rainforest, asks if the introduction of the bird's nest fern (Asplenium nidus) into palm oil plantations can help increase biodiversity and give benefits to the growers by encouraging beneficial insects and improve nutrient cycling.

 

Video

Shop for palm-oil-free soap