Precious or precarious: the palm oil debate

palm oil

A quintessential element of modern living, a key basis on which modern life and lifestyles have come to be concentrated and a veritable ingredient of everyday use, whether you are concerned about its usage across the domains of the culinary or in the even more encompassing fore of the many ways of existence, the world today is reliant excessively on what is otherwise a very unassuming product, not exotic nor coveted, but still commonplace enough to be stamping about its marker of authority across all facets of our everyday reckonings. Sourced from nature, with a really long history of use that goes back by some 5000 years and cheaper than other alternatives available, and supposedly scoring well in some important considerations of health while harbouring alternative uses as well that make it a low waste agent on which the world has come to be increasingly dependent, this is one of the most versatile and also one of the most efficient ingredients to ever have been. And yet, despite all the many prominences of its expansive range of utilities that have rendered it a global staple of life, this is a crop of a distinction more dubious than definite in its fame.

It perhaps is no name wrapped as yet in surprise to any of us, as the particular allusion that we have evoked is fitting but for only one of the most commonly encountered elements that have made its presence felt in literally every sphere of our being. As a staple of the food world, as a manifestation of beauty, as a biomass and a biofuel, as well as in its use as an animal feed, palm oil is the perennial wonder that finds mention in the ingredient list of at least half of the everyday products we rely upon. But despite its many takers waxing eloquent about its array of goodness that none of us today can possibly do without, not unless we are more than committed to that concern, palm oil has also been subject to vociferous resistance and criticism by more socially and environmentally conscious folks who are strongly against the detrimental impact it has been exerting for long on the natural world.

While palm oil is difficult to be replaced as one of the most resourceful ingredients in many of the world’s staples owing to its efficiency in production, that which translates to economic as well as physical gains accrued in terms of yield, it also is the inherent ‘goodness’ residing in what is essentially just another vegetable oil that makes it all the more contemporary and resilient in its essence as an all rounder ingredient of multifarious distinctions. A highly saturated vegetable oil, the naturally low content of trans fat in palm oil makes it quite a healthy additive in a number of baked and processed goodies, though concerns exist still about the other health impacts that can in fact prove to be detrimental. Whatever that might be though, this same property of saturation means also that palm oil is semi solid at room temperature, leading it to be the ingredient of choice to be incorporated into baked goods, as a cheap substitute for butter and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Making cookies crispier and fried delicacies crunchier and at the same time cakes moister and breads fluffier, while helping ice creams remain smoother and creamier and chocolates shinier and letting that slice of pizza allure you with its more desirable texture, palm oil is one of the most necessary inclusions in the world of modern convenience food. In products of personal care and grooming, including make up and beauty, palm oil finds rampant usage as the foaming agent in soaps and detergents, shampoos and lotions, or as the texturiser and moisturiser in lipsticks and toothpastes, as well as in varying capacities in deodorants and zillions of such other stuff that we mindlessly use every single day of our lives.

Equally prevalent is the use of palm oil in somewhat unethical measures, that makes proliferate use of its odorless and flavourless qualities to include it as a low cost additive in certain items of food, most notably in peanut butter even when its incorporation into ice creams and mayonnaise and such stuff that calls for creaminess as a parameter of richness is equally based on its ‘consistent’ nature as a thickening agent. Also commonly used as a cooking oil, as well as applied to wounds to help them heal due perhaps to its purported antimicrobial effects, this natural preservative that is well known in its culinary uses however finds application in other areas that have been equally of advantage to the modern human. As an adhesive that binds together the particles in fibreboard, or as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels that can be harnessed for heat and power and biodiesel or as a cheap raw material for biofuels, even blended with other fuels, palm fuel can well seem like the answer to all of the modern day problems. Even the waste matter that results out of processed palm oil can be used to produce energy, and even more importantly the leftover palm oil used for cooking can be an effective biodiesel once subjected to certain chemical treatment. In view of such miracles that the use of palm oil can grant in such reasonable means of efficiency, it indeed is no surprise that this completely natural element has found extensive use ever since its introduction to the world in times dating as far back as 3000 BCE.

But despite being an entirely natural mode of living that the world has embarked upon, what has emerged over the years is that this increased dependency on palm oil for a stupendous range of uses is doing the world more harm than good. While human health and human rights concerns make for serious issues indeed, the most prominent cause of uproar over this supposed agent of sustainability has been its devastating impact upon the environment. This impact of destruction also is as wide ranging as the many uses of the oil itself, stemming ironically at times from such areas of its working that which has been touted as its merits for long. In fact, the palm oil that is used as biodiesel ends up generating thrice the amount of carbon emissions as compared to conventional fossil fuels, aggravating therefore the global carbon problem. However, the environmental concerns that arise out of the use of palm oil relate more to its nature and process of production rather than its actual usage in different capacities. Native to the African continent and more widely used in the developing world, the main problem associated with palm oil production arises out of its profitability. As a low cost, high yielding crop that meets 35% of the world’s demand for vegetable oil on just 10% of the total land, it is this high efficiency of palm oil that has made it so preferred a crop to cultivate for farmers. Particularly in nations of the developing world where income opportunities are not as extensive and accessible, the cultivation of palm oil is not just a matter of meeting the demands of the world but also intricately linked to survival and sustenance. This means that doing away with the production of this very essential oil is out of the question, despite the fact that it is a key natural factor of global deforestation.

Deforestation though is not the only environmental hazard reaped by the extensive cultivation of palm oil. While the profits accruing to mass production of this wonder crop has meant indeed that large areas of forested land is cleared by cultivators to obtain the land for commercial use, the results accruing to this unabated clearing of forests has engulfed also the fate of the wildlife thriving in these pockets of nature. Particularly in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, this very crucial medium of survival of the rural population there who have experienced a considerable surge in income by taking to this trade is contributing to its dwindling natural diversity. So rampant is the clearing of forests to allow palm plantations to take over in that part of the world that it has led to the destruction of the natural habitat of its endemic orangutan species, the Sumatran orangutan, pushing it to the brink of extinction. Today classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, the orangutan isn’t the only species to have bear the brunt though. The Sumatran rhino and the Sumatran tiger are the two other species facing the risk of imminent extinction owing to their loss of habitat attributable to palm oil cultivation. Also at stake is the Bornean orangutan even as a similar such fate awaits the biodiverse richness of Malaysia, the second largest producer of the oil, the production of which also leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions by virtue of clearing vast expanses of land by setting them ablaze.

The taking over of land to dedicate them to extensive palm oil production might be triggering the spree of deforestation in certain parts of the world but this form of encroachment has also exclusively mowed down indigenous rights particularly in Malaysia and the biodiversity hotspot of Borneo. As a result social conflict in those parts of the world have heightened while allegations have forever abounded of considerable violation of human rights as a result of palm oil production. Issues like child labour, sexual abuse, exposure to hazardous pesticides that can led to infirmities and even death are only some of the ramifications that palm oil production has entailed in the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Another significant concern arising out of this greater concentration on pursuing the production of palm oil relates to its use as a fuel. In substantially prioritising palm oil cultivation to meet increasing demands for such sources of energy that is supposedly green in essence, the use of it in its capacity as an ingredient of food is often overlooked, thus causing malnutrition particularly in developing countries. This is one rather critical manifestation of the profound impact the production of palm oil has upon essential human rights, making it therefore an issue more contentious than what appears to be a rosy reality at first glance.

In light of such unwanted consequence that palm oil production entails and that far outweighs its benefits, it might be reasonable to believe that a ban of this otherwise miraculous oil is what would put the world in stead for a better future in all respects. But the issue is not as easily resolved. Since palm oil is highly effective in production and as efficient in use, not to mention its positive impact upon the economic status of poor countries and poorer people, it would be disastrous to shun completely the use of it. The answer lies in conscious and sustainable means of its production and usage through means that though have been on paper since long. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, established nearly two decades back in 2004 is one such governing institution that aims to mitigate the unwanted impacts related to its process as far as possible, though with doubts over its execution in practice. The growing furore over the unsustainability of palm oil though has led to a simultaneously growing consciousness that advocates charting out such scope of its use that adheres to the dictums of sustainability. All this is well said and done but only if consumer awareness of this very necessary commodity of the modern world manages to take centerstage sooner than later.