Do you know what roasted peanuts, cinnamon biscuits, margarine, detergents, chocolate spread, coffee whitener, bio-fuel, pizza dough, dry soup mix and soap have in common? They can all be made of or contain the same ingredient. One that goes by the name of palm oil. In fact, palm oil can be found in 50 % of products found on store shelves, from foodstuffs to cosmetics. Its presence in products sometimes goes unnoticed. It can be labelled on packaging under different and rather mysterious names. 
Humans most probably started using palm oil in Africa thousands of years ago. The oil is extracted from fruits, both flesh and seed, of the oil palm. Almost 60 million tons of palm oil are produced globally on a yearly basis. Production has steadily been increasing throughout years and is projected to continue its rising trend in the future. The majority of palm oil comes from Asia. Indonesia produces 50 % of all the palm oil followed by Malaysia with 35 %. 
The oil palm is a very efficient plant. It can produce 3.7 tonnes of oil per hectare. That is 5 times more compared to the second most yielding oil plant species, rapeseed, with its 0.7 tonnes of oil per hectare. High efficiency results in more oil from less land. In 2012 oil palms share in land covered by major oil producing plants was only 5.5 %. On the other hand these areas produced the highest amount, 32 %, of all plant based oils and fats. 
High productivity, cultivation possible in a wide geographical range, numerous options for use and a high demand for plant based, GMO-free, high grade food oils all boosted palm oil production. This activity, however, is far from innocent and is a much debated issue. Not a month goes by without any news concerning this topic. 
The majority of palm oil is produced in a un-sustainable fashion. To gain arable land vast areas of rain forests are being burned down, creating greenhouse gas emissions. Habitat destruction is pushing animal species, such as Sumatran tigers and orangutans, towards extinction. In addition, palm oil is associated with human rights violations. Homes of indigenous people are being bulldozed to the ground. Some people, including children, are forced to work at oil palm plantations. And the list of dark deeds goes on. 
Decreasing the negative impact of palm oil production is a hard nut to crack. Besides its favourable properties, palm oil is also a major source of income for developing countries. Without any serious competition or feasible alternatives in sight the only way to address this issue is to make the production more sustainable. Initiatives and standards have been established to make palm oil production more efficient and less of a burden for the environment. Not all producers abide these standards though, and even those who do are not playing by the book all the time. 
Given the widespread presence of palm oil it is quite clear that most of us play a part in this. Despite a seemingly impossible situation we can try to turn things for the better by demanding the use of certified palm oil and proper labeling of products.
By Aljaž Malek