Palm oil special

The debate: Palm oil and troubled waters

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

The debate: Palm oil and troubled waters

Related tags: Palm oil, Oil palm

The danger is real: as population growth hurtles along, we are running out of space — fast.

In 1960, one hectare supported 2.3 people, but by 2005, this figure had increased to 4.5. By 2050, it will have to provide for 6.4 people. That’s a big ask.

Palm oil accounts for around one-third of all the edible oils and fats consumed in the world, but the crop is obtained from less than 1% of the planet’s agricultural land.

You wouldn’t believe that, though, if you heard the outcry​,” says John Clendon, chief executive of Univanich, a certified sustainable oil palm processor in Thailand. “You would think oil palms were taking over the world, even though the figure for soy would be much, much more than that​.”

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Soy needs almost 10 times more land to produce the same quantity of oil as palms, so you could argue that, faced with a future of soaring population demand for agricultural land, that palm oil is a no-brainer; that we should be planting more oil palm and less soybean and sunflower because the latter two need much more space. 

Wrong. The charges against oil palm are serious to the point that environmental groups regard it not only as a danger to wildlife but also to the health of the planet. 

Greenpeace recently released a report under the title “Licence to Kill: How Deforestation for Palm Oil is Driving Sumatran Tigers toward Extinction​” and singled out Wilmar, the world’s biggest palm oil trader, for not doing enough to ensure its supplies do not come from illegally cleared forests in Indonesia.

According to the campaign group, between 2009 and 2011, 382,000 hectares of tiger habitat — most of it lowland forests which many other species also depend on — were cleared and as few as 400 wild tigers are thought to remain in Sumatra.

Deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil and illegal logging had been so rapid that a panicked report in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said most of the country’s forest might be destroyed by 2022. 

Although the rate of forest loss has declined in Indonesia over the past decade, UNEP still says the spread of palm-oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to forests in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meanwhile, is especially vehement in its opposition to oil palm and last year implemented rules designed to punish the crop. The agency said this rule was designed to protect the global environment.

The EPA ignores the fact that oil palm is an agricultural crop planted on legitimate agricultural land​,” wrote Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, last year in a well regarded defence of the industry.

While the US aspires to plant trees to reforest their abandoned and non-viable land, Malaysia has been planting oil palm and rubber trees on most of its agricultural land​. 

As a result, the oil palm plantation is a large net carbon sink, absorbing more carbon and removing emissions resulting from deforestation and land use change, as evidenced by our national data submitted to the UNFC​.”

Clendon agrees, saying: “As Paul Watson, the co-founder of Greenpeace said: ‘It doesn’t really matter what is true, it only matters what people believe is true.’ And the sad fact is that people believe that palm oil is responsible for all this destruction of the environment. That’s obscuring the real truth in many cases​.

People are uninformed, on the whole. You fly over Borneo in an aircraft and you see all this wonderful, virgin rainforest. But much of it isn’t — most of it has been logged, and if you look closer, you will probably see logging tracks. Most of the really tall trees have gone, and so have many of the animals that lived in them. But palm oil gets the blame for that.

Logging often destroyed forest habitats long before oil palms arrived on the scene. Indeed, the people in former logging areas are lucky if the oil palms do arrive. I’ve spent a lot of time recently in the southern Philippines, which is a disaster area, environmentally — completely logged out​.

The problem is that nobody has replaced the logging and planted oil palms. So the people there are in shocking poverty and as a result they have the New People’s Army, the MILF — terrible insecurity arising from that situation​.

By attracting this level of criticism, it is clear that the palm oil industry is struggling to find a way to justify itself and its practices. 

The first wave of attacks on the crop arrived about 20 years ago on nutritional grounds and came from the American Soybean Association. 

The association had clearly seen a looming threat from oil palm to the dominance soy enjoyed in the edible oil segment. It was by far the largest traded oil so the ASA started to attack palm on nutritional grounds, saying it was bad for the public. 

Clendon says: “There were shocking advertisements in the United States — they don’t show these any more because they know they are untrue and they would probably be sued. But soya is doing much more damage to American health than palm ever will. That’s because soya has to be hydrogenated before it can be used in margarine, etc​. The ASA even branded palm as ‘a tropical grease​’.”

Such criticisms has now largely been discounted, but American imports still lag far behind those to Europe even if they are growing — ironically — on the back of greater public awareness of food health and legislation against trans fatty acids. 

The arguments will continue to rage as this is an emotive debate with either side struggling to find common ground with the other.

But from what we can see, the issue of food security and efficient land use is creeping up on the world’s farming community very fast and the pressure is mounting on planters of whatever persuasion to make the most out of their hectares. 

Oil palm does have its problems — especially among its non-certified sustainable practitioners — but it also has solutions, which we will go into later this week. If only the debate could be less black and white, some progress could be made on this issue.

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