This post was originally published on February 22, 2019 and updated on December 4, 2020.
The Guardian US is renowned for its award-winning journalism. When it ran freelance journalist Paul Tullis’s article on how the world got hooked on palm oil, we knew the piece would be thorough. MPOC CEO Kalyana Sundram is quoted about some of the more controversial issues.
The article starts by explaining why palm oil is so ubiquitous. Tullis notes, “Palm oil’s world domination is the result of five factors: first, it has replaced less healthy fats [trans fats] in the foods in the west. Second, producers have pushed to keep its price low. Third, it has replaced more expensive oils in home and personal care products. Fourth, again because it is cheap, it has been widely adopted as a cooking oil in Asian countries. Finally, as those Asian countries have grown richer, they have begun to consumer more fat, much of it in the form of palm oil.”
“Today,” Tullis writes, “three billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil. Globally, we each consume an average of 8kg of palm oil a year.” He adds that 85 percent of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where it has helped to develop local economies. But he adds that soaring demand has also caused “tremendous environmental devastation.”
Tullis also devoted quite a bit of space to explaining how palm oil became the most popular biofuel in the EU in response to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, even when other fuels – including oy, rapeseed and sunflower – perform equally well. “Palm has one big advantage of these rival oils: price.” The EU policies “created an unprecedented market for the uptake of palm oil,” Sundram commented.
Importantly, the article explains that the oil palm is, “blessed with many attributes that have helped it on its path to dominance. It is perennial and evergreen, enabling year-round production. … Most importantly, it gives the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop – almost five times as much oil per acre as rapeseed, almost six times as much as sunflower and more than eight times as much as soybeans. Boycotts of palm oil would only lead to its replacement by other crops needing far more farmland likely more deforestation.”*
Commented Sundram, “The cost of production is far less than any compared [comparable] vegetable or animal fat. Industry is simply palming off the benefits to the consumer.”
Tullis also described investments made in Malaysia’s palm oil production, ranging from increasing yields with a new, natural pollination technique that replaced hand pollination, to investments in milling technologies. He notes that, “More recently, plantation owners have found profitable uses for waste such as empty fruit bunches, palm fronds, palm fruit peels and palm kernel shells. Mill effluent that was once dumped into nearby streams now produces electricity.”
Increased yield is another method for halting deforestation. “The idea being that if more oil can come from existing plantations it will obviate the need to expand the planting area into biodiverse forest.” Tullis writes that the Malaysian Palm Oil Board researchers have identified oil palms that can give almost double the amount of oil compared to common strains.
He further explained some of the issues surrounding some sustainability standards, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil**, established just 10 years ago. “The RSPO says having less strict certification criteria encourages participation, the hope being that manufacturers of retail products will ramp up to higher levels once they see they can sell certified palm oil for a higher price.”
He concludes that, “replacing palm oil with other oils will only accelerate deforestation, since none of its competitors boast anywhere near its yield per unit of land: palm accounts for 6.6% of cultivated land for oils and fats, while delivering 38.7% of the output, according to the European Palm Alliance, an industry group.”
*In 2018, Malaysia announced the capping of newly forested areas for plantations. This will mean there will be no possibility of losing further forest for plantations. MPOC’s position is that the best solution for protecting our wildlife and rainforests is to support stronger standards, and beef up enforcement of already existing laws and legislation. One way this can be done is by supporting the global use of certified sustainable palm oil, which is produced in compliance with stringent laws protecting wildlife, the environment and small family farmers.
** Malaysian palm oil has been produced sustainably and responsibly for more than 100 years. For generations, Malaysian growers and producers have complied with strict national environmental regulations and best plantation management practices. Malaysia was also the first country to produce certified sustainable palm oil. It has now strengthened its commitment with its Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification program. This mandatory, nationwide plan ensures that Malaysian palm plantations occupy only legal agricultural land and land is properly zoned.
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