The unwritten thought/suggestion is that government and big corporate pharmaceutical companies generate greater profit and reward from genetically engineered animals than genetically modified plants. While that sinister thought is lurking, the overall message is that “genetically” modified has brought many positive aspects to our health and well-being. So, while my earlier message was “that damn chemistry,” there is always a brighter side. Go pharming! Which brings me to another kind of pharming, the harvesting of palm oil. To be sure, the basic ingredient is “natural” versus synthetic. However, by the time we see it in hundreds of applications it has been chemically modified, hence the connection.
What exactly is palm oil? It is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm. It is natural, all natural, and red in color before processing. It is different from palm-kernel oil, which is produced from the kernel of the same fruit. Palm oil doesn’t come from palm trees. It comes from an oil palm tree in “bunches containing a large number of fruits with the fleshy mesocarp (reddish pulp) enclosing a kernel that is covered by a very hard shell. Palm oil, coming from the pulp, along with palm kernels, are considered to be primary products. The oil extraction rate from bunches of the fruit varies from 17-27% for palm oil and from 4-10% for palm kernels.”
Worldwide production of palm oil has grown steadily for the last 50 to 60 years. “Between 1995 and 2015, annual production grew from 15.2 million tons to 62 million tons.” That’s quadruple growth! The estimate is that by 2050, production will quadruple again, bringing annual volume up to almost 250 million tons. No wonder the footprint of palm oil production plantations has grown, and I’ll discuss the consequences of this growth in a minute. So why the incredible growth?
According to an article by Paul Tullis in a 2014 issue of The Guardian, there are five reasons:
- First, it has replaced less healthy fats in foods;
- Second, producers have pushed to keep its price low;
- Third, it has replaced more expensive oils;
- Fourth, because it is cheap, it is widely used in the Asia-Pacific region;
- Fifth, as Asia-Pacific countries have increased wealth, the population has increased the consumption of fat, much of it from palm oil. (Think about American culture feeding on McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken! An eating culture transferred first to Europe and now growing in leaps and bounds in the Asia-Pacific region).
Regardless of Tullis’s conclusion, I believe the two primary reasons for growth are economics and concern by consumers for a healthier diet. As Tullis says, “widespread adoption of palm oil began with processed foods.” In the 50’s and 60’s, there was growing concern that the high saturated fat content in butter might increase the risk of heart disease. Initially, the food industry, and consumers for that matter, replaced butter with margarine made with vegetable oils that were low in saturated fat.
By the 80’s and 90’s, scientists learned that the process by which oils in margarine were made, hydrogenation, was even less healthy. The process created a different kind of fat called trans-fat. It turned out that palm oil was the best alternative to trans-fat oil ingredients. Palm oil, or palm kernel oil, was the perfect additive for processed food. It was not only lower in saturated fats than either butter or vegetable oils, but also cheaper. Today, palm oil is used in packaged baked goods and in frying oils. It provides a foaming agent in shampoo and liquid soap. It is used as a replacement for tallow in cosmetics. It is also used as an adhesive that binds together particle board. And, it is used as a cheap raw material in biofuel, particularly in Europe.
The conundrum is that while palm oil is cheap and provides a livelihood for millions in tropical climates, it has also created massive deforestation in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. So short-term gain has come at long-term cost, particularly adding to climate change. Malaysia and Indonesia produce more than 80% of palm and palm kernel oil. Obviously, the demand for this type of oil has created economic advantages for these third world countries. But at what cost? Farmers have burned down forests to plant oil palm trees. The smoke has caused harmful lung congestion in countries as far away as Singapore. The wildlife in forests has been driven from its homes. These forests are rain forests, which sequester carbon dioxide. The deforestation is not only devastating to wildlife and harmful to the health of millions in the region but has exacerbated climate change. The peat bogs in this area can go down as deep as 60 feet and the deforestation eliminates their ability to capture greenhouse air emissions.
Palm oil has created a different kind of oil crisis. The region has lost natural balance between palm oil, agriculture, and forest preservation. However, as traumatic as it seems, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Governments of palm oil producing countries have begun to slow down palm oil plantation growth. Experts are teaching farmers on palm oil plantations, large and small, how to increase yield from existing palms. More and more companies in the supply chain, farmers, processors, manufacturers and retailers have established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. RSPO is focused on sustainable practices through the entire supply chain.
Finally, plantation owners and small farmers have developed uses for the waste that is generated. The processing mills are now turning their effluent, which used to be randomly dumped in streams, into electricity. Phillip Taylor, a postdoctoral student at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, hypothesizes that “if all the palm oil refineries worldwide turned their methane into electricity, it would reduce the climate impacts of the operations 34-fold.” Taylor continues, “Indonesia’s Sustainable Palm Oil Initiative requires palm operations to begin developing biogas capture, which should speed more companies’ adoption of the technology.”
The article in The Guardian by Paul Tullis, titled How the World Got Hooked on Palm Oil, explores the “miracle ingredient in everything from biscuits to shampoo to oil.” But it also explains that the “dependence on palm oil has had devastating environmental consequences.” At the end of the day, it remains to be seen whether we will destroy our forests and create unbridled waste or if we can maintain an equilibrium.
For all of us, harmonious balance can be elusive. Let’s hope the folks in Malaysia and Indonesia have learned that balance is more important than unbridled growth.
Another Letter from the Earth
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is