The Palm Scribe

Agriculture in the Post Pandemic Era

illustration of palm oil past pandemic agriculture
Palm Oil Plantation, Photo: Lian Pin Koh

Almost everyone I know is confident that we will all get through this difficult period. The problem is, however, that most are not sure whether it will be in two weeks’ time or even in a year’s time. Dr Michael Levitt, a nobel peace prize winner and a Stanford University Professor of Biology is now famous for having predicted almost exactly when China would endure the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. He, as well as a 14- year-old Astrologer from India now predict through their models (whether astrology or statistical biology) that this virus will not likely cloud us for months or years. We can only hope that they are right and that many more lives won’t be lost.

Nevertheless, the big question in everyone’s mind is whether it will still be the same when we are finally allowed to walk out our front door to go to work, or even take a stroll through the park. I guess most would be worried about their jobs. Especially if they are employed or have a business that is considered non- essential. Restaurants, malls, entertainment and various businesses would certainly have their fair share of losses over the weeks of closure. Unfortunately for some, who were probably already just surviving before the crisis, things will never be the same. Many in the informal economy have lost much of their income during the somewhat indefinite period of the lock downs. The stress of dealing with the economic impact of the crisis has many very worried. I was quite disturbed to see one headline this evening. German Minister commits suicide after “coronavirus crisis worries.”

But what happens after the pandemic? Some things that were in high demand at the height of the pandemic will certainly continue to be sought after, well after the crisis. Hand sanitizers, surfactants or soaps, gloves, the internet of things, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, essential foods…just to name a few. A large part of these are what is considered now, essential items or services. In many countries, governments have come up with lists of essential services or businesses. These of course, include the Police to keep law and order, Water, Electricity & Utilities and of course the Healthcare workers, the hard-working heroes of the current crisis. Personally, I have six nephews and nieces who are Doctors and are in the front line of this crisis and not a day goes by without me thinking about how much they have on their plates right now.

But there are many other jobs or services that are equally essential in this crisis. In Ireland, the government published a list of workers who provide an essential service, who may continue to go to work despite movement restrictions. Among them are farmers, farm labourers, manufacturers of food and beverage products and constructions workers involved in essential health and related projects relevant to the coronavirus crisis. In New Zealand, the government there also included primary industries (food agriculture) including food and beverage production and processing. Malaysia has recently learnt from experience in this crisis that you need the whole supply chain to work to get the farm products in rural areas to the plates of hungry urban dwellers. This crisis has taught us again that agricultural jobs are part of essential services, a lesson that had been forgotten over the years.

While wars have been started for different reasons, political persuasions or economic security, it has been in the war years and the decade immediately after that, that the agricultural revolution was born. You see, conventional warfare in those days were limited by two things, fuel and food. Fuel was the easy part of the equation if you knew where to find it and store it. But food was key, because soldiers could fight only as long as they had food to fuel their bodies. Canned food flourished because it allowed the supply chain to extend to months over vast distances. Farmers then came under pressure to produce much more food with fewer workers since able bodied men were drafted to the front. Mechanisation was introduced and price support programs from the great depression were institutionalized and that’s the genesis of how farmers in the United States became very dependent on their federal government for subsidies.

Today, we are at war too, a global war against a virus. We will no doubt prevail but we will have learnt a valuable lesson again and agriculture will become important again. Perhaps it already has become very important. The latex gloves used in healthcare, supermarket, airports or any point of contact all come from those rubber trees that are tapped in Indonesia, Malaysia and Indochina. There has been so much demand for latex in rubber gloves that people now worry if there will be enough latex left to make condoms. Other than some embarrassing disease, there is also another thing we may have to deal with in 8 months’ time.

Then there is the ubiquitous palm oil tree in Southeast Asia found between ten degrees north and south of the equator. Now that we have been locked in our own houses, many have started to cook more at home and found that the most competitively priced edible oil comes from palm oil. Some forget the fact that palm edible oil is both accessible and priced competitively is crucial right now. But not the masses who are struggling to make ends meet when they have lost their daily source of income as waitresses, labourers, cooks, gardeners, shop assistants, store keepers… all those in the informal economy. Its one less thing they have to worry about.

Palm oil is also in the surfactants or soaps & detergents that we use to wash & disinfect our hands, clothing and bed sheets with. The shampoos and soaps you bathe with when you come back from buying your share of groceries in the crowded store, they are all probably made from palm oil. It is also used in almost every essential food item you could think of… even powdered milk. Perhaps unessential when you have regular milk deliveries but certainly a necessity where longer term storage is needed under a mandatory movement control order.

All over Europe, stuck in their houses, what do you think they are eating with their bread? Maybe butter or margarine from palm oil… but certainly lots of Nutella.

How about the anti-oxidants you took as a health supplement? If I told you a palm oil based molecule has been known to be prescribed for homeopathic treatment to boost your immune systems from influenza, and respiratory tract infections, as well as cardiovascular disease, it may sound like a hard sell for an antivirus agent. But the fact is, palm oil is one of the most abundant natural source of tocotrienols, an anti-oxidant more commonly called Vitamin E.

But what about the workers, will they be healthy enough to work the estates? They can’t work from home. Well there are three things. Both Malaysian and Indonesian plantation companies have been slightly ahead of the curve with their Business Continuity Plans mainly because the hotbed of infections have been in urban areas and not the rural areas. So, this has bought them time to put in place many SOPs to curb infections quite early on (such as regular temperature testing, hand hygiene, treatment protocols, etc). Secondly, the plantation life is in the great outdoors. You can take social distancing to another level because we have for many years been working with one worker for every 10 hectares, some very efficient plantations can do with one worker for every 15 hectares.

The third thing is that Indonesia has a relatively young population, with a median age of 30 and 45 percent of its population is still rural. Conversely, Italy, one of the nations hardest hit by Covid-19, has a median age of 46 and almost 70 percent of its population is urban. Italy also has the second highest percentage of people over 65, after Japan, at 23 percent.

Some say trying to pick what to invest in now would be akin to trying to catch a falling knife. But even if you cannot see much further in the future than what you can see in your house’s walled interior during a lockdown, I can see that in a post pandemic world, agriculture will hit the deck running because even today agriculture produces products that protects us, disinfects us and fuels our body to fight pandemics.

*Dennys Collin Munang is Director for Sustainability and Investors Relations at Eagle High Plantations

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