So far the 21st century has not proved to be the paradise we were once told it would be. Instead of living a life based on advanced technology that commercials, cartoons and theme parks predicted, we are struggling to devise solutions to vexing problems on a wide variety of fronts.
We’re seeking out healthy foods, scrambling for alternative sources of energy and trying to keep the economic engine going while protecting a fragile environment. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a solution that addressed all three concerns?
Not that many years ago some pundits claimed palm oil fit that description. As a substitute for trans fatty acids, or trans fat, palm oil is now found in thousands of products such as bread, crackers, chips, margarine, cereal, soap and even lipstick. It’s a natural oil, derived from the palm tree, and serves as a feedstock for biofuel production. So one might think that palm oil is the ideal product, a savior of sorts, benefiting the planet on all fronts. But a look behind the scenes reveals a different story.
The use of palm oil has been a major point of controversy for the past 5 years. To some it is looked upon as an acceptable alternative, despite its shortcomings, while many others present it as a product with negative effects that far outweigh any positive attributes it may possess – a pariah of sorts.
I can’t recall having ever seen such a headline for olive oil or canola oil, and while Greenpeace has a reputation for taking extreme measures to make a point, the reasons for their protest in this case bares investigation. According to Bustar Maitar, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Forest Campaigner:
“Greenpeace is taking action to expose the disastrous impacts of the palm oil and logging industries on Indonesia’s peatlands, forests and on the global climate.”
Ape Habitats and Poverty
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):
“Ape habitats are vital to all species as a source of food, water, medicine and timber and as a regulator of our changing climate. Secure local communities living in harmony with the forests are the best guardians of this precious wildlife heritage. Endangered apes co-exist with millions of poor, rural people in Africa and Asia. Saving apes and reducing human poverty are intertwined.”
Ninety percent of the world’s palm oil exports come from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, most of which are located on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The problem with palm oil production is that the palm oil industry favors the same lowland forest that functions as the only remaining habitat of the orangutan.
“Oil palm plantations, along with logging, fires, and other factors, destroy rainforest habitat, hinder migration patterns, and block travel corridors. Roads and plantations fragment the rainforest, facilitate encroaching settlements, and make animals accessible to illegal hunting and poaching.”
“Plantations also pollute the soil and water with pesticides and untreated palm oil-mill effluent, cause soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers, and cause air pollution due to forest fires.”
On the Health Front
Concerns about palm oil in a healthy diet are not new. In 2005, Jeff Novick, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida, commented on the use of palm oil in our food products.
“This is nuts! All these tropical oils are highly saturated fats. Like butter, cheese, and meat, tropical oils raise LDL cholesterol and clog arteries with plaque, increasing your risk of a heart attack. In fact, tropical oils can have more cholesterol-raising saturated fat than even butter,” emphasizes Jeff. Coconut oil is 92% saturated, making it more saturated than butter, beef tallow, or even lard. Palm oil, though it contain less saturated fat (50%), is full of a type of saturated fat, palmitic acid, which appears to be most conducive to heart disease.”
Fueling the Controversy
Unlike fossil fuels, palm oil was originally considered to be carbon-neutral, as the carbon dioxide emitted from burning it is roughly the same as the amount absorbed during the growth cycle. But the result of destructive farming methods has been to release far more greenhouse gases than the amount saved. It is estimated that on an annual basis 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air from drained swamps, while an additional 1.4 billion tons are produced from the fires which are used to clear rainforest for planting palm tree plantations.
“The primary causes of unprecedented deforestation in Indonesia include land clearing for agriculture and timber estate plantations, including oil palm and pulpwood plantations. The European target for increasing biofuel usage is creating a market that can drive the expansion of palm oil plantations.”
What the world is learning from a thorough review of the biofuel industry is that there is no panacea to be found when converting plants to fuel. Whether the product is palm oil or ethanol, a holistic view which examines the complete cycle, from planting to production to refining to ultimate end use, must be taken. Deforestation, pollution, erosion and water usage all produce long range effects on the wildlife, the environment, and the population.
A Hopeful Future Ahead
To address the issues raised with regard to the creation and management of palm oil plantations, High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) initiatives have been implemented to identify areas for palm oil development with respect to habitat conservation and sustainable land use in countries such as Borneo and Sumatra.
HCVFs are defined as having at least one of the following attributes:
- Containing significant biological diversity resources.
- Containing rare, threatening or endangered ecosystems.
- Providing basic services of nature such as watershed management or erosion control.
- Providing basic needs of the local community, with historical and/or cultural significance.
Under severe public pressure to remedy the serious problems being caused by palm oil production, the industry finally came together. The first meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was held in August of 2003 in Kuala Lumpur. This meeting included over 200 delegates from companies and special interest groups which represented 16 countries.
While the group adopted a Statement of Intent during that meeting, and forty-seven organizations have subsequently signed on, it is still a non-legally binding document and environmental groups have criticized the member companies for not adhering to the document’s goals, two of which state:
- Sustainable production implies legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial management and operation.
- Sustainability must result from consultation and informed consent by all stakeholders, that may include residents in areas of production, palm oil plantation companies, smallholders, actors along the entire supply chain, consumers, governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
So what progress has been made in the five years since the RSPO was formed? Only now is the first production of sustainable palm oil being shipped to Europe. Such progress is welcome, if not long overdue, but the sad news is that the RSPO is estimating that only 1.5 million tons of sustainable oil will be produced in 2009, a mere 4% of world production.
And the controversy on conformance continues to rage on, as Greenpeace is claiming that even this first shipment fails to meet the criteria for sustainable production.
Solutions to issues such as improving our health, protecting the environment and solving the energy crisis won’t come easy, and many times our first attempts won’t pan out as expected, but the key from a Global Patriot perspective is to try out new options and monitor the progress of initiatives underway with the goal of continuous improvement.
What initiatives are you formulating to create a better world?