The story of palm oil starts in the rainforest, home to more than half of the world's estimated 10m species of plants, animals and insects and seen as a potential source of cures for a range of diseases. Known as the ‘lungs of the planet’, rainforests recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. They also store water, prevent soil erosion and protect biodiversity. But they're under serious threat.

Value of the rainforest: dead and alive

Setting a value on nature is a complex process, and certainly not without its critics, but it offers a way to make decisions about natural resources such as rainforests. Academics in the US and the Netherlands have calculated the economic value of Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia – one of the two remaining habitats for Sumatran organutans – which is under threat of deforestation for the cultivation of palm oil and rubber. They calculated the value of the forest to people in the region over a 30-year period if it were protected, and the value if it were destroyed for logging and subsequent cultivation.

Hover over the elements on the left hand side to compare the value of the ecosystem benefits offered by the rainforest when it's conserved and when it's cut down.


Value per hectare/per year


A rainforest scene

Deforestation for cultivation

Value per hectare/per year


A rainforest scene A deforested rainforest scene A plantation scene

Source: Economic valuation of the Leuser National Park on Sumatra, Indonesia, Pieter JH van Beukering, Herman SJ Cesar, Marco A Janssen

The destruction of Indonesia's forests

Exact rates of deforestation in Indonesia vary, with different figures quoted by researchers and government. However, the World Resources Insitute estimates that the country lost more than 6m hectares of primary forest between 2000 and 2012 - an area half the size of England. The images below show primary forest loss in the Riau province of Indonesia between 2000 and 2012. Slide the bar across to compare the before and after imagery.

Primary forest cover in 2012

Primary forest cover in 2000

Satellite view of Indonesia in 2000 2000
Satellite view of Indonesia in 2012 2012

Images: Global Forest Watch


Palm oil plantations in south-east Asia have tripled in just a decade, driving deforestation, habitat loss and the destruction of communities across Indonesia and Malaysia. These plantations also have a large impact on greenhouse gas emissions because they are often established on land converted from swamp forests, which release carbon dioxide and methane when they are cleared.

Palm oil production by country

Palm oil only grows in some of the world's most biodiverse countries. Indonesia is the largest producer of the ubiquitious oil, with palm oil plantations already spanning more than 6m hectares. Malaysia is the second largest producer, estimated to produce 39% of the world's palm oil. And while African and Latin American countries have yet to see the explosion of production experienced by these two south-east Asian nations, they are becoming bigger palm oil players. Watch the map, and use the slider, to see the growth in global palm oil production over the last 50 years.

MT = metric tonnes

Source: Index Mundi, year of estimate 2014

Can palm oil be sustainable?

Some believe that palm oil has no place in a sustainable future while others maintain that with stringent industry regulations and responsibly managed land, production of this global commodity can work in tandem with conserving our environment and protecting communities. Use the audio player below to hear the verdicts of three experts on whether palm oil can ever be sustainable.

[Palm oil] must make genuine contributions to the development of emerging economies like Indonesia rather than destroying the future of its people, its wildlife.. and global climate on which we all depend.

Annisa Rahmawati, forest campaigner, Greenpeace, SEA Indonesia

We must realise that producers will only produce sustainably if consumers like us send a clear signal that we want a sustainable product.

Darrel Webber, secretary general, Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

If you really want true sustainable production... it would be produced by the smallholders on land that they already own, is non-forested and under-utilised in its present state

Dr Ian Singleton, conservation director, PanEco Foundation


The story of palm oil is a complex one. The industry offers a path out of poverty for many people in developing countries such as Indonesia, where more than 28 million live below the poverty line. However, many oil palm plantations have been developed without consultation or compensation of the people that live on the land. These communities may not own their land but have managed it for generations, growing food and cash crops, and gathering medicines and building materials from the forests.

Supriyono is a 40 year-old smallholder palm oil farmer from Dosan village in Sumatra. The Dosan community has committed to protecting forests and implementing sustainable farming practices. Supriyono speaks about the impact palm oil has had on his income, prospects and hopes for his family.

Video: Ulet Ifansasti, Interview and text: Yosef Riadi

A pineapple farmer in his field

Photo: Greenpeace/Ulet Ifansasti

'We lost everything': a pineapple farmer on how the palm oil industry has affected his livelihood

Laskar Harianja is a 30 year-old farmer and single father, who supports his three children on the income from his small pineapple plantation. He saw his plantation destroyed by fires caused by peatland destruction to make way for palm oil plantations.

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Where it goes

The 42m metric tonnes of palm oil exported each year is shipped to more than 70 countries around the world, where it is used in everything from biofuels to chocolate bars. Of that, 16% was certified sustainable palm oil in 2013, meaning it meets standards around deforestation, lawfulness, transparency and social impact laid out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. However many say these are not sufficient to ensure it is sustainable and deforestation-free.

Palm oil imports

Palm oil is the most used vegetable oil in the world and demand for the versatile oil is booming. The populous emerging markets of India and China, where palm oil is predominantly used for cooking, are the biggest importers of palm oil. Watch the map, and use the slider, to see how the import market has grown over the last five decades.

MT = metric tonnes

Source: Index Mundi, year of estimate 2014

How much of this is sustainable?

The market for sustainable palm oil is growing but it still represents only a relatively small fraction of overall palm oil sales.

MT = metric tonnes

An empty palm oil bottle A full palm oil bottle represting 40910MT

59.6m MT

Total volume of palm oil produced in 2013 (USDA)

An empty palm oil bottle A full palm oil bottle represting 40910MT

9.8m MT

Total volume of certified sustainable palm oil produced (RSPO)

An empty palm oil bottle A full palm oil bottle represting 40910MT

5.4m MT

Only 51.7% of the certified sustainable palm oil produced is sold as CSPO (RSPO trade data)

What does the marketplace look like?

Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade, and is set to double again by 2020. Driving much of this growth is the rapid expansion of demand in Asia’s populous emerging markets, where palm oil is liberally used in frying and cooking.

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Companies are under increasing pressure from many sections of society to reduce their environmental and social impacts. When it comes to palm oil, some businesses have responded to these demands, such as Unilever, which sources 100% of its palm oil sustainably; but others, such as Burger King, refuse to disclose what percentage of the palm oil they use is certified.

How much palm oil do businesses use?

Find out which companies buy the most palm oil. Hover over the pie charts to see how much of what they buy is certified as sustainable and which household-name companies refuse to disclose this information.

Certified sustainable palm oil

Non-certified palm oil

Estimated total purchased


MT = metric tonnes

Business case studies: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Burger King

Burger King has long been criticised for its heavy use of palm oil from questionable sources. Palm oil is mixed into the oil used to cook its french fries and crops up in recipes for its cookies and baked goods.

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Shortly before it was bought by Kraft Foods, Cadbury suffered the kind of PR disaster that brand managers have nightmares about.

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In January 2014, L’Oréal announced its plan to become “free from deforestation” in the production of all its products by 2020 at the latest.

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Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble was named and shamed by Greenpeace for an inadequate policy on sourcing palm oil in 2014.

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Palm oil is estimated to be in around half of all packaged items found in supermarkets and is a common ingredient in margarine, biscuits, bread, breakfast cereal, instant noodles, shampoo, lipstick, candles, detergents, chocolate and ice cream. It is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, accounting for 65% of all vegetable oil traded internationally.

What do you value most?

When you shop for everyday products, aside from lower prices, which of the following are most likely to influence your decision on what to buy? Drag and drop the different options below so that they appear in the order of what you value most to least. Then click 'compare' to see how your values rank against those of surveyed consumers.

Survey results

Special offers/price: 51%

High quality: 41%

Durability: 25%

My favourite brand: 22%

Convenience: 22%

A socially responsible company: 9%

Based on a survey of 2,000 UK internet users aged 16+ conducted by Mintel in April 2014.


Rapeseed and soybean oil are among the most popular alternatives to palm oil but their cultivation can also damage the environment. In fact, palm oil has a better yield per hectare and requires less fertiliser and pesticides than either. Campaigners are wary of pushing for alternatives to palm oil and instead want to improve the palm oil industry.

Palm oil v the alternatives: how do they compare?

Palm oil is deeply controversial, especially among environmental activists but few, if any, can point to an alternative. This interactive helps explain why. The advantage of palm oil, compared to oils such as soybean and rapesed, is the high production rate per hectare combined with the relatively small amount of energy, fertiliser and pesticides needed.

A palm tree






Soybean plant













Tonnes of oil produced per hectare


Kg to produce one tonne of oil


Kg to produce one tonne of oil

Energy input

Gigajoules to produce one tonne of oil

Why there's no easy answer to finding a sustainable alternative

Despite a move towards sustainable palm oil production in recent years, environmentalists continue to campaign.

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The story of palm oil

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