Palm Oil - the sustainable 21st century oil

Palm oil (PO) is the world’s most widely produced and traded vegetable oil. It is predominantly used for food, but increasingly also for personal care products and more recently as a feedstock for biodiesel. Indonesia and Malaysia dominate production and have done much to make the oil so important, but have also come under criticism for destruction of tropical rainforest. However, with world population projected to increase to over 9 billion by 2050, PO will become even more important for world food supplies.

Growing oil palm has been a major contributor to poverty reduction in developing countries. Rich Westerners, who destroyed most of their native forest centuries ago, usually ignore this when they protest about the destruction of rain forest, ogle iconic baby orang-utans and then return to consuming rapeseed and soybean oils produced under conditions of far less biodiversity and sustainability than palm oil! It is in this context that the Lipids Group are organising this conference -  whatever the problems and criticisms, palm oil is set to be the most-produced oil of the 21st century. The question then is: how can it be produced sustainably with minimum damage to the environment and maximum benefit to producers and consumers?

The oil palm originates in equatorial West Africa. The palm fruit bunches, see picture, weigh 10-40 kg, and the reddish fruits are rather like large dates. Each fruit contains a single seed (the kernel) surrounded by a soft oily flesh. Palm oil comes from the flesh and palm kernel oil, similar to coconut oil, comes from the kernel. Unlike oilseed crops, no solvents are used to extract the oil, and a palm oil mill is more than self-sufficient in energy, as the extraction residues are burnt to produce steam and electricity.

The Palm Oil - The Sustainable 21st Century Oil conference held on 23 March 2009, addressed all these issues with knowledgeable speakers from many disciplines and countries.

The first day focused on production and trade. James Fry of LMC International, Oxford, will speak about the global PO economy - what drives it and what the future is likely to be. He covered the effect of governments’ biofuel policies on PO prices and demand, oleochemicals and the longer term sustainability of production. Speakers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, USA and Europe followed. The speakers from developing countries showed the scale of the production, how measures to improve sustainability have already been introduced and the effect on the incomes of the millions of people who are involved in palm oil production and processing. The day ended with Denis Murphy of the University of Glamorgan talking about future biological challenges and prospects, in particular improvements in yield and changes to the fatty acid composition of the sort that have been achieved in oilseed crops, but not in palm oil.

The second day focused on applications and the consumer. Tom Sanders of Kings College London spoke about nutritional aspects and the importance of PO’s triglyceride composition. Other speakers addressed processing and PO’s use in food, oleochemicals and biodiesel.

The conference ended with a session on the sustainability of PO production. Erich Dumelin, 2009's Lipids Group International Lecturer, gave a life cycle assessment of PO in comparison with other oils. He was followed by speakers from Greenpeace, Malaysia and Indonesia. The conference concluded with an open session with the audience. By getting producers, consumers and environmentalists together in this way it was hoped that a mutual understanding will evolve, and practical and positive results will emerge to ensure the sustainability of palm oil production for all our futures.

  • The picture shows an oil palm fruit bunch, showing individual fruits. Palm oil comes from the outer flesh of the fruit; while palm kernel oil comes from the white kernel.

Lipids Group

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