If you had asked me this question a few years ago I would have been pretty stumped. Like most people I vaguely understood that Palm Oil grew in the tropics, and that it had a bad press. If you had asked me what the oil palm fruit looked like, or how you harvested it I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. So let’s start with the basics.
What is an Oil Palm Fruit?
The best description I can give is that is looks like a giant 20kg plus raspberry made of miniature coconuts. Make sense to you? The Palm Fruits grow in bunches of hundreds of fruitlets. They start out a very dark purple/black on the outside and as they ripen turn red then orange. The fruitlet is about the size of a very large grape or small egg, and in many ways is rather like a coconut. In the coconut it is the flesh of the nut that contains the oil, however, in the palm oil fruitlet it is the husk that contains most of the oil. When ripe this husk is a bright, almost fluorescent orange, fleshy and oily to the touch. Inside the husk is a hard kernel, with a dark brown shell and a solid white centre. When ripe the centre is much harder than a coconut and too hard to eat, although if harvested when the fruitlets are still black it has pretty much the same flavour and texture as coconut. This kernel also contains oil which is of a higher grade and more valuable than the oil extracted from the husk.
The oil palm begins to grow fruit about 18 months after being planted and will continuously produce new bunches all year round which ripen and are ready for harvesting on a rotation of 10-14 days. This will continue until the palms reach about 20 years old, at which point they are over 14m tall, and it becomes very hard for the harvesters to cut the fruit.
The fruit is harvested using two different methods. When the palms are small and the bunches are below head height then a large metal chisel on the end of a heavy steel handle is used. The palm frond (or leaf) below a ripe bunch is cut away first, and then the stalk holding the bunch to the palm is cut. Once the palms become taller then a sickle on the end of a telescopic aluminium pole is used in a similar manner. The bunch is deemed to have reached ripeness when two or more fruitlets have fallen from the bunch and are sitting at the base of the palm. Harvesting is hard, technical and heavy work and in a day a cutter working in the taller palm would be expected to cut between 150 and 200 bunches.
Why is palm oil so popular?
Oil Palm is the highest yielding edible oil in terms of litres/ha (apart from oil from Algae that hasn’t been commercialised yet). We would expect to produce about 7,000litres of oil per hectare per year, in some areas they will get 8,000litres, and with improvements in the yield of each new generation of palms planted, this should only increase. In comparison the next highest yielding vegetable oil is from coconuts. It produces about 1500litres per hectare per year. Coconuts require pretty much the same tropical environment and conditions to grow as oil palms so you would need more than 4 times as much land to produce the same volume of coconut oil as you would palm oil. Many palm oil plantations have been planted on old coconut plantations. The second most widely consumed edible oil is Soya Oil. This can also be grown in similar habitats, and large areas of South America are planted with Soya. The yield for Soya is marginally less than that of coconuts so again less oil from more land and another significant difference between soya oil and palm oil is that the majority of soya oil has been genetically modified. As far as I am aware, there is no GM palm oil. We certainly don’t produce any. Palm oil is therefore currently the cheapest edible oil available, and requires less land than current alternatives.