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What Are Palm Oil Trees?

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  • Written By: Anna Harrison
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Palm oil trees are tropical plants that are native to West Africa, but are now grown in many areas as an agricultural crop. Plantations now exist all over Africa and South America, as well as other areas, that grow them on a large scale and process the oil for commercial sale. Palm oil manufacturers have made these trees the top producing fruit trees in the world. As more plantations are created, however, they often destroy rainforests and bogs, which has created a host of environmental problems.

While palm oil trees grow from 60 to 80 feet (18 to 24 m) tall, trees that are cultivated for their fruit are usually kept pruned to less than 30 feet (9.1 m) to make it easier to harvest. They do not require a great deal of growing space and as many as 58 trees are planted in a single acre. Individual trees do not produce side branches, but a single tall trunk with very long leaf fronds and fruit at the top. Older trees are often killed when they become too large to make room for the more productive younger trees.

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Palm oil trees will grow in virtually any type of soil as long as they have plenty of water and direct sunlight. They thrive in tropical lowlands and peat bogs that receive as much as 6 feet (1.8 m) of rain per year. Hot temperatures between 80° and 90° Fahrenheit (26.7° to 32.2° Celsius) are optimal for growing palm oil trees. Below this range, they will grow more slowly and will also take longer to produce fruit.

Fruits of the palm oil trees are called drupes, and each mature female tree produces from 200 to 300 each year. Small in size, the oblong fruits range from 1 to 2 inches (2.5 cm), and take about 5 months to ripen. They change in color from green to orange as they ripen and may be partly black or brown. The oil is obtained from the small white seeds within the fruit.

The palm oil industry employs several steps to obtain oil from the fruits. First, they are sterilized them with steam and then crushed and heated; the oil is then pressed out and then clarified. Before it is ready for commercial sale, it is deodorized and refined, which removes fatty acids, pigments, and phospholipids. After all of these processes are completed, the bleached and refined palm oil is ready to be packaged and transported to retail outlets. Large mills may process as much as 60 tons of fruit in an hour, while small rural village mills average just one ton in an eight-hour day.

In many areas where palm oil trees are grown, the natural environment is being destroyed. Rainforests are cut down and peat bogs are drained, and, as a result, habitats for many animals are eliminated, including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, and the orangutan, which are already critically endangered. Greenhouse gas emissions are also increased with the production of palm oil.

Many companies now take part in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which is attempting to address these problems with the palm oil manufacturers. They are trying to force businesses to produce palm oil in a way that is safe for the environment. Consumers can help by buying palm oil that is certified sustainable, or by using other oils such as those produced by corn, safflower, and canola oil plantations. These oils are not only safer for the environment, but healthier as well.

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