Outline of Production:
Palm Fruit to Product
Palm Oil: What Is It?
Where Does It Come From?
Today, palm oil is an essential raw ingredient in a variety of food, hygiene, and household products worldwide. First grown in West Africa, possibly as early as 3000 BC, where it was used for food and medicine, palm oil became popular in Europe in the nineteenth century, after the Industrial Revolution ignited demand for a multi-purpose oil to be used in products like soap and lubricant for steam engines. In 1848, Europeans brought the first palm oil seedlings from West Africa to the botanical gardens of Bogor, Java.
Palm oil as a commercial crop got its start in Indonesia in 1911 and in Malaysia in 1917. While the vast majority of the world’s palm oil comes from Southeast Asia, palm oil plantations can be found in countries close to the equator, as shown in the map below, where climate is conducive to the oil palm's growth.
Global Palm Oil Production & Imports
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 55 million metric tons of palm oil were produced in a twelve-month period between 2012 and 2013. The chart below shows how that production was broken down by country.
The USDA also reports that more palm oil is produced than any other vegetable oil in the world, followed by soy, rapeseed, and sunflower. The oil palm yields between five and ten times more edible oil per hectare than other types of oil crops, according to Oil World 2007 in this graphic by SoyaTech.
In 2012, India was the top importer of palm oil with 8.5 million metric tons, followed by China with 6.5 million metric tons, according to the USDA.
For more about the history of palm oil, see "The Cambridge World History of Food," edited by Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Connee Ornelas.
This factsheet on palm oil, produced by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, contains more general information about palm oil’s history, uses, sustainability, and production process.
The World Agroforestry Centre’s 2009 report provides a detailed description of the biology and ecology of the Elaeis guineensis tree and the growth of the palm flower. It also discusses the various uses of palm oil in cooking, household products, and other services.
The American Palm Oil Council, which is affiliated with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, engages in promotional and educatIonal activities to enhance the marketability and image of palm oil and palm oil products.
The oil palm fruit, above, grows in large bunches that hang from the Elaeis guineensis tree which originated in West Africa. Today it is used in a plethora of grocery and household products, as well as in biodiesel. Nutella, a product on the store shelf behind the palm fruit, lists palm oil as its second ingredient after sugar. Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella, announced in April that it had switched to 100% CSPO (segregated) palm oil for its French market. Photo of store shelf by Roswitha Siedelberg.
Graphic | Fedelpalma.org
37% of world vegetable oil production in 2012/13 was palm oil
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
Oil palm produces nearly
10 times more oil/area
One palm seed is only slightly larger than a green grape, but these small powerhouses, once grown, generate oil for shortening in food, chemical derivatives in shampoo, and biofuel in trucks, as well as a myriad of other products. Where does palm oil originate, and how did this product become so widespread?
Palm oil is harvested from both the fruit (mesocarp) of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) and the kernel (endosperm), the fruit and kernel yielding different qualities of oil used in different products.
On this page
Global palm oil production & imports
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2. From Palm Fruit
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1 | What is palm oil? <
52% of world palm oil production in 2012/13 came from Indonesia
USDA Foreign Agricultural Services.
21% of world palm oil imports went to India and 16% to China (2012/13)
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
2. From palm fruit to product
1 | Palm oil: What is it? Where does it come from?
Our investigation reveals that some palm oil--the most widely used vegetable oil in the world--is produced with slave labor. Palm oil is in all the products above, and many more.