Palm Oil: Versatility amid controversy

29th Aug 2014
Palm Oil: Versatility amid controversy

When it comes to health in the name of vanity, humans go to endless lengths to get their hands on every low calorie, anti-aging option available. Fairly new on the scene is palm oil, considered a healthy alternative to trans fats and standard ingredient in almost all beauty products.

The US’s imports of the product more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, and Indonesia subsequently surpassed Brazil in their rate of deforestation. Combined, Malaysia and Indonesia account for eighty-five percent of worldwide palm oil production.

The oil palm thrives in climates where rainforests tend to do well, and with the plant producing a hefty profit, $4500 per acre, it is not hard to see why large swathes of pristine ecosystems are being wiped out to make way for this lucrative and versatile crop. Still, there is widespread controversy over how high a price oil palm producing countries’ environments should be paying for the commodity.

Endangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger have been adversely affected by habitat loss in the region. Norway even announced earlier this year that it would pay Indonesia one billion dollars if they significantly slowed their rate of deforestation. Yet, when up against such bodies as The Malaysia Palm Oil Board, a government agency with the mission of promoting the palm oil industry, while still regulating it, it is no wonder the country is still reluctant.

Efforts have been made by many companies to source the commodity sustainably, yet keeping up with demand while ensuring healthy cultivation has proved exceedingly challenging. The RSPO, or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is an association under Swiss law that brings together different stakeholders of the oil palm industry with the vision of “making sustainable palm oil the norm.” Many companies have signed on, including IKEA, Cadbury, and Unilever. The RSPO, though well intentioned, has not escaped criticism from environmental groups due to the fact that members are still able to clear cut virgin forests, and some of the farms certified as sustainable have come under attack for child labour and human rights abuses.

Part of the reason for the stark increase in palm oil production is that trans fats came under scrutiny in the US during the last decade due to new food labelling standards, and palm oil was seen as a healthy alternative to these trans fats. Therefore, a variety of companies replaced the trans fats in their processed foods with palm oil in order to placate consumers, drive up sales, and label their products trans fat free. These unsaturated fats, which fall into two broad categories, naturally-occurring and artificial, have been shown to increase levels of lipoprotein LDL, commonly known as “bad cholesterol” and decrease levels of lipoprotein HDL, or “good cholesterol.”

Though at the beginning of this craze, palm oil was deemed a safe and similar alternative to trans fats, recent studies have shown that it still may elevate LDL levels.

Even with the disturbing revelations about this commodity, palm oil’s uses seem endless. Its potential as a viable biofuel has even altered its export capacity this year. According to Executive Director of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, Fadhil Hassan, “The orientation of palm oil was always for export. Now we see domestic consumption and biodiesel is the most significant factor if the Government is really committed to the program.” With conventional fuel prices having the potential to fluctuate significantly and often, every nation seeks a reliable fallback fuel.

Though Indonesia and Malaysia boast some of the world’s most unique biodiversity, in an attempt to increase their standing in the world market, these nations may be pawning off their most valuable assets for the sake of profit and comeuppance. Sadly, the orangutan and Sumatran tiger are on their way to extinction if the monoculture of palm oil does not give way to the pristine rainforests that attract so many to Southeast Asia.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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