You may be hearing more about palm oil. This non-GMO ingredient is the most popular oil in many parts of the world. In the United States, it’s a common ingredient in packaged foods, ranging from Nutella to Luna bars to Smart Balance spreads. Approximately 35 percent of the world’s palm oil – and about 80 percent of the palm oil used in the U.S. – is grown and produced in Malaysia, where it is certified sustainable.
Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia. It has one of the region’s most prosperous economies. The World Bank has praised the country for nearly eradicating poverty. The country, which is home to pristine beaches, lush rainforests and thriving, high-tech cities (the iconic Petronas Towers are located in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur) is also a leader in caring for the environment. At the first Earth Summit in 1988, Malaysia pledged to keep at least half its land under forest cover. It has exceeded that pledge.
Some of the countries that neighbor Malaysia include Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Brunei. These countries may also produce palm oil, but may not follow the same sustainable guidelines.
Below are some earth-friendly facts about Malaysia’s palm oil:
- Malaysia is home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests. The palm oil industry has established the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund to help protect these rainforests and the native wildlife. The fund also supports other education and conservation programs.
- Barn owls and snakes are used to control the pest populations on Malaysian oil palm plantations. They are welcomed part of the industry’s integrated pest management practices that enable farmers to reduce the use of harmful chemical pesticides.
- In Malaysia, old palm trees are pushed over, shredded and left to decompose in the warm sun. This adds nutrients to the soil and saves on the use of inorganic fertilizers. It also prevents air pollution from burning the old palms. Malaysia has a long-standing zero burning policy.
- Malaysia conserves energy by using palm fiber and palm kernel shells as fuel to generate steam. That steam is used to power the palm oil extraction process. Excess steam is used to generate electricity for the plantation and factory workers.
- Many of today’s oil palm plantations in Malaysia once farmed rubber or coconut, but have since been converted to more efficient and sustainable oil palm. The oil palm is the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world, requiring only 0.26 hectares (a little more than ½ acre) of land to produce one ton of oil. Contrast that with soybean, sunflower and rapeseed (canola) which require 2.22, 2 and 1.52 hectares, respectively, to produce the same amount of oil.
- Oil palm trees’ high leaf area index makes them excellent at cleaning the air. In fact, one study has shown that the oil palm tree has a leaf area index of 5.6 which is comparable to that of the rainforests.