Sustainability assessment of palm oil by means of expert interviews and the Analytic Hierarchy Process

Oliver Meixner, Sonja Hackl, Rainer Haas


Palm oil is one of the most important plant oils worldwide and of particular importance for the food industry. In 2017, palm oil accounted for 35 % of the global plant oil production. The area used for palm oil production increased from 6 million hectares in 1990 to 19 million hectares in 2017. Also, the production volume increased from 11 million tons of oil to 63 million tons. Until 2025, it is estimated that the demand for palm oil will rise to 250 million tons. The strong increase is due to a number of factors: The oil palm has a significant higher yield per hectare compared to other oil seeds, the production of palm oil is relatively cheap, palm oil is highly versatile and has excellent manufacturing characteristics. However, the industrial production of palm oil has serious ecological and social impacts, amongst others, deforestation due to significantly increasing large-scale monoculture plantations, drainage of peat forests, loss of habitats, decrease in biodiversity, increase in greenhouse gas emissions and decline in soil, water and air quality. Moreover, land expropriation of indigenous people, poor working conditions as well as forced and child labor are linked to the industrial palm oil production. Therefore, an increase of sustainability in this industry is of utmost importance. In order to achieve this goal, the assessment of sustainability is considered as an efficient tool. However, research about the sustainability of palm oil is usually focusing on the environmental pillar of sustainability only. For this reason, the present study—which was finished in September 2020—presents results from a comprehensive sustainability assessment of palm oil, considering economic, environmental, and social criteria simultaneously. During qualitative expert interviews, various stakeholders of the supply chain assessed the sustainability criteria of the palm oil production and application using the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP), a decision support tool by which it was possible to include qualitative and quantitative criteria as well. The determination of the subjective assessments generates a deep understanding of the stakeholders’ opinions. Further action that possibly increase the sustainability of the palm oil industry were identified, leading to reliable recommendations for action in the food industry and in politics.

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ISSN 2194-511X


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