Palm oil: Beyond the headlines and addressing the reality

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Indonesian palm oil companies are often accused of illegally starting widespread forest fires that result in smoke choking neighbouring countries
Indonesian palm oil companies are often accused of illegally starting widespread forest fires that result in smoke choking neighbouring countries

Related tags: Palm oil, Agriculture

Deforestation, loss of habitats, social upheaval and vast swathes of smoke: there’s no doubt the palm oil industry is guilty of continuing atrocities against both planet and humanity.

If you believe the headlines, palm oil is both a menace to society and a hazard for the Earth’s future. The trouble is, very few people look beyond the headlines and investigate the reality.

If they did, they would find a crop that is efficient in its use of land and in its longevity. 

They would see an industry that is increasingly working with the communities that cultivate it to develop local economies and provide jobs in areas that have been devastated by other failed forms of agriculture.

They would also be aware of just how important to consumer life hydrogenated trans fat-free palm oil has become as a widespread and versatile ingredient.

The trouble with palm oil is it is an easy victim of powerful lobbies and at the hands of the press. 

It is palm oil’s fate that it is cultivated in biodiverse areas where animals and plant species are often at real risk of extinction. As a result, headline writers are not challenged to find new ways to vilify the crop when the words “palm oil​”, “orang utan​” or “Malay tiger​” appear so often in the same sentence.

After all, society has far more sympathy towards these revered primates and beasts than to frying oil.

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In short, the palm oil industry has an institutional PR problem that won’t go away — indeed it seems to be getting worse.

In Europe, so-called “Nutella tax​” proposals last year set out to punish not only fans of the gooey chocolate spread, but also any consumption of palm oil-containing products, from toothpaste to mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, producers of soy, rapeseed and corn oil the United States see oil palm as a threat to their hegemony and are often heard pointing out the damage the crop does to productive agricultural land.

Next week, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will host its annual meeting and general assembly on palm oil in the Indonesian city of Medan. FoodNavigator-Asia was asked to be a media partner for this event, and we accepted the invitation for a number of reasons.

First, we understand the importance of oil palm to Southeast Asia and its place in the economies of countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Likewise, we believe in the potential for its sustainable production and are committed to covering the positive side of the industry as much as the negative.

We also take a close interest in the environment across our region and understand how food security is a burning issue that the industry and governments need to address. By dint of the vast swathes of land given over to oil palm across our patch, its sustainability is something we must all consider, and we are committed to broadening this debate.

And as a news service for the food industry — and part of a global network — it is our duty to report on all sides of the palm oil debate.

And this is what we plan to do over the course of this week as we look at the oil palm industry in detail, from the realities of its cultivation to international opinions on the crop. We will speak to the communities involved in its production and the distributors who trade it overseas to sometimes hostile markets.

By the time the RSPO’s event in Medan next week, we hope to have covered a complex and controversial subject in fair and frank detail so our readers across the world will have a solid platform on which to base their edible oil decisions.

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1 comment

finally some sensible perspective

Posted by Hiroko Shimizu,

Strongly support your decision to participate the RSPO. I published a paper on environmental, health and economic benefits of palm oil last year. Looking forward to reading your report. http://www.institutmolinari.org/the-health-environmental-and,1386.html

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