Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Given the expected significant increase in the demand for vegetable oil as the world’s population and urbanization continue to rise, a pertinent question arises and needs to be addressed: how can the world meet the demand in a most efficient, economical and sustainable way.
The global market for vegetable oil is projected to exceed 275 million tons in 2024, according to a study conducted by Global Industry Analyst Inc. Meanwhile, Statista.com said that in 2018/2019 the world already consumed 197.33 million tons of vegetable oils, 69.57 million tons of that, or 35.26 percent of the total, in the form of palm oil. The results of another study cited in a report of menafn.com showed that demand for protein and fat, including from vegetable oils, is increasing when income, and/or urbanization is on the rise.
A phenomenon that we are increasingly witnessing as taking place, mostly in western countries, is that one of the most efficient and productive oil-producing crop, oil palm, is intensely vilified as the main reason behind the deforestation taking place in tropical virgin forests, leading to and a subsequent wave of boycott directed towards its products. Activists, at the forefront of the attacks, justify their campaign against palm oil, including calling for a ban on palm oil, by citing the alleged devastating effect the cultivation of the crop is inflicting on the planet.
Such an attitude, however, is not only short-sighted but also fails to provide a solution. How do they plan to replace palm oil, which accounts for more than a third of world supply? More importantly, how do they plan to replace palm oil while assuring that the environment suffers less, deforestation curbed if not halted?
Before we attempt to answer that question, let us look at palm oil in an objective, detached way. As an oil-producing crop, oil palm is unrivaled in terms of productivity. It would nine around eight times the amount of land for soybean, the largest alternative, to produce the same amount of oil that oil palm can produce from one hectare of land. Once productive, after it reaches three years of age, it can be harvested throughout the years for a productive period of some 25 years.
One hectare of planted oil palm can produce an average of 3.7 tons of palm oil and 0.4 ton of palm kernel oil, much more than any of its rival oil-producing crops. Its products are also very versatile and can be processed into a variety of product with a high boiling and freezing point, consistency and characteristics, making them the most widely used ingredient in a plethora of products ranging from food and cooking oil, energy fuels, cosmetics, and personal hygiene products, animal feed and many more. Because of the productivity of oil palms, palm oil can be produced around 20 percent cheaper than most vegetable oils.
A study used by the European Union as a base for its decision to gradually phase out palm oil-based biofuels, actually showed that palm oil is actually not the biggest culprit for deforestation. It says that soybean is responsible for 19 percent of the global deforestation due to agriculture, while palm oil follows far behind with only eight percent, after maize’s 11 percent. In terms of land usage, oil palm plantations only occupy some eight percent of global agricultural land.
The Conversation, a non-profit media outlet that uses content sourced from academics and researchers, said on June 2017, that its calculation based on the data used by the European Union, showed oil palm only to be responsible for only 2.3 percent of deforestation in the world.
While many commodities are driving deforestation today, all of them take a back seat to beef cattle, the Union of Concerned Scientists said on their official website. It said that beef was not only the biggest deforestation driver in Latin America, but recent research also suggested that it was also first globally.
While it is true that deforestation of peat soil for new oil palm plantations releases a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere, the bovine digestive system emits large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide—powerful global warming pollutants. Because their feedstocks are based on commodities like palm oil and soybeans, they also encourage further deforestation through their consumption.
The fact that is often ignored is that palm oil cultivation if done properly and sustainably, can ultimately not only provide the cheap vegetable oil to feed the world’s need without causing deforestation but also provide the livelihood that could lift the living standard of poorer populations in producing countries. It has to be kept in mind that 40 percent of the world palm oil plantation is owned or managed by small scale farmers, smallholders.
Promoting other crops to replace palm oil would only have an adverse effect, not halting deforestation but increasing it as much more land would be needed.
So, forget about substituting palm oil. What is needed is to help promote and enforce a sustainable palm oil production, especially among the smallholders, who do not have to account to stakeholders or the public as large palm oil companies have to.
The focus should be on ensuring sustainability along the entire supply chain. Not an easy task, but not impossible especially if all stakeholders – producers, consumers, traders, buyers, financiers and more – all work together to achieve this.