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A palm oil plantation in Indonesia's Jambi province

Photo Essay: How palm oil is made

Palm oil is a hugely important commodity in modern manufacturing, but its production exacts a weighty environmental cost

Demand is rising for palm oil as an ingredient in processed foods and for biofuel. The largest producer is Indonesia, where expansion of oil palm plantations is escalating, often at the expense of rainforests and peatlands. Environmental campaigners have long sought to halt the rampant conversion of these ecosystems, because of the devastating impacts on biodiversity, forest inhabitants and greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a national policy to develop oil palm plantations on ‘degraded land’, rather than on forests and peatlands, with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Whether this will slow the clearance of primary rainforests remains to be seen.

  1. A palm-oil plantation in Indonesia’s Jambi province. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the nation had 7.65 million hectares planted with oil palm in 2010, with this area having increased at an average annual rate of 300,000 hectares over the past decade.
  2. Each oil palm fruit comprises an outer skin, a pulp that contains palm oil within a fibrous matrix, and a central nut divided into a shell and kernel. The kernel also contains oil, different to palm oil, that resembles coconut oil. Oil palm fruits grow in bunches weighing anything from 10kg to 40kg.
  3. Workers load oil palm fruits into containers headed for processing plants in Malingping, in Indonesia’s Banten province. The USDA estimates that Indonesia’s production for 2010/11 will be 23 million tonnes, a record volume and an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year.
  4. Cooking oil made from palm oil. The major component of its glycerides is the saturated fatty acid ‘palmitic’; this makes it a viscous semi-solid in tropical temperatures, and a solid fat in temperate climes.
  5. Workers in a state-owned palm oil factory in Luwu, south Sulawesi, Indonesia. The palm-oil industry employs over three million people in Indonesia and contributes around 4.5 per cent of GDP.
  6. Palm oil fruits on their way for processing in Malingping. Reliance on Indonesian production is expected to increase in the next decade, as production from Malaysia declines due to limited land availability and ageing oil palm tree stocks.
  7. Palm oil is rich in ‘carotenoids’, pigments found in plants and animals, from which it derives its deep red colour. Modern high-yielding varieties, grown under ideal climatic conditions and with good management, can yield five tonnes of oil per hectare, per year (excluding palm kernel oil), far outstripping any other source of edible oil.

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