Below is the full text of a commentary I recently wrote for Vol. 1 2017 of Diplomatic Voice, a publication of the Institute of Diplomatic and Foreign Affairs, Malaysia. You can view the entire publication here.
Our Palm Oil Conundrum
Malaysia’s latitude and tropical weather are ideal conditions for the oil palm tree to flourish. Currently Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of this ‘golden crop’. We held the pole position until 2008, when Indonesia became the world’s biggest producer, a position they still proudly hold today. Combined, Indonesia and Malaysia produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil.
Palm oil is one of the most important types of oils and fats available in the world today. Its usability is ubiquitous; palm oil is not only a common ingredient in foodstuffs, but it is also widely used in the cosmetics industry and in cleaning products, and nowadays increasingly for biofuel as well.
The demand for this ‘green gold’ has kept prices high on the commodity markets, and has been credited for bringing about national development and improving standards of living across the board in producing countries. As the world population continues to increase, the demand for oils and fats in the world is expected to continue to rise.
The oil palm is one of the most efficient crops for oils and fats. A relatively large amount of palm oil can be produced from quite a small area of land. For the same quantity, soybean oil production would require almost ten times the land area. This means that less land needs to be exploited to produce a target amount of palm oil, compared to any other vegetable oil.
Palm oil unfortunately has been linked to several environmentally unsustainable practises. These include deforestation, fires and haze pollution, habitat loss for endangered animals, and reduced biodiversity due to mono-cropping. Furthermore, some palm oil plantations have faced allegations of land grabs and human rights violations. The ‘healthiness’ of palm oil for consumption has also been an issue in the past, but this has largely been debunked – palm oil’s safety for consumption is no different than other widely available vegetable oils in the market.