The Oil Palm

The Consequences of Getting It Wrong

In September 2012, Kabeh Sumbo, a Liberian entrepreneur, participated in a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City alongside her was President Ellen Johnson SirLeaf, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer and others.  The subject of the panel: the challenges facing women in the developing world.

Ms Sumbo offered a unique perspective as a woman that had to struggle to provide for her family until her establishment of a palm oil production and distribution business, made possible through micro financing. The same story could be told of men and women alike throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, where the opportunities afforded through the burgeoning oil palm industry are reducing poverty and empowering communities. In Malaysia alone, the poverty rate in the country has fallen from 50 per cent to less than 5 per cent alongside the growth of the industry.

But despite the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI) promotion of success stories such as Ms Sumbo’s, the organization is promoting efforts denigrating the palm oil industry and promoting mythical alternatives as a replacement for palm oil – and which present potential harm to the health of consumers.

In a report commissioned and supported by the CGI, the international consultancy AT Kearney argues schizophrenically in favor of replacing palm oil demand with alternative vegetable oils to meet the world’s ever growing demand for oils and fats. But in its zeal to promote the novel and unknown, AT Kearney ignores the real life consequences of their claims and suggestions.

1. Alternative oils are an unproven food source.

Despite AT Kearney’s projections that alternative oils may be a “game changer” for food production systems, no evidence supports their claims. Indeed, research on algal oils has so far been limited to meeting energy and consumer good needs. And there is no reason to believe that algal could be better replacements of palm oil than existing vegetable oils, whose processing to achieve characteristics similar to palm oil have led to significant health problems such as trans fats.

And with projections of demand for vegetable oils doubling by 2021 due to population growth and increased demand in the developing world, reliance on unproven food sources rather than expanding existing systems such as oil palm plantations will have disastrous consequences for global food security.

In contrast, Malaysian researchers are actively developing new oil palm trees with yields 90 per cent greater than current advanced strains, demonstrating an important step in meeting future demand with less land.

2. Saturated fats are not harmful, and are actually critical to a balanced and healthy diet.

Unfortunately, AT Kearney perpetuates the tired and inaccurate claim that saturated fats are harmful, the result of a 60 year old myth that has been perpetuated by interested parties and poor science. Saturated fats are a vital part of the human diet, supporting absorption of nutrients into cells and excreting waste from said cells. And saturated fats are absorbed less efficiently than unsaturated fats, reducing caloric absorption by 20-30 percent.

In one of the most comprehensive assessments of the impact of saturated fats on the human diet and its alleged association to cardiovascular disease, the relationship was disproven. In a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers concluded, “…there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”

3. Palm oil contains healthy micronutrients necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.

Palm oil is not just a basic vegetable oil upon which much of the world relies, but also an important source of micronutrients for general consumption and bio-pharmaceutical needs. Palm oil in its raw form is rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, and tocotrienols, the most significant and efficient source for Vitamin E.

Red palm oil contains 15 times more beta-carotene than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes, making it an ideal source for the rich anti-oxidant. And with more than 8-10 million children throughout the world suffering from Vitamin A deficiency, and 250,000 children a year dying from the deficiency, increasing access to Vitamin A should be a global health priority.

And palm oil tocotrienols have been associated with numerous health benefits, including reduced incidence of arthrosclerosis, protecting against long-term damage from strokes and combatting cancer. A miracle nutrient, tocotrienols are driving a more than USD 600 million bio-pharmaceutical sector in Malaysia due to demand throughout the world. Tocotrienols are being studied as a tool for treating breast and prostate cancer.

4. Oil palm development has reduced poverty and continues to offer means for social advancement and hunger eradication throughout the developing world – which alternative oils do not offer.

Palm oil production has been one of the greatest poverty alleviators in the world, providing employment for small farmers and high skilled workers alike, and driving development throughout the developing world. In Malaysia, more than 570,000 people are directly employed by the sector and small farmers account for 40 per cent of palm oil production in the country.

In Africa, the share of small farmers contributing to palm oil output is even higher, with more than 1 million farmers in Nigeria and numerous small farmer initiatives throughout the continent. These efforts have been supported by the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the World Bank has noted that agriculture development through sectors such as the oil palm industry are three times more effective at reducing poverty than any other sector.

While Ms Sumbo’s story as told at the CGI event in September 2012 was taken as a unique accomplishment, millions of other participants both within and on the periphery of the palm oil sector have similar stories to share.

No alternative oils offer a similar narrative, and in fact reflect a direct threat to the livelihoods of billions of people in communities throughout the developing world who cannot afford the significant infrastructure costs associated with such alternative oil sources such as algae.

Alternative oils certainly offer an opportunity that governments and industry should explore to meet niche demands, as the sector is already doing. They offer a diversified source of lipids and by-products, and offer an opportunity to further reduce GHG emissions as exemplified by Malaysia’s carbon negative oil palm sector.

But AT Kearney’s projection that alternative oils can and should replace palm oil reflects the most irresponsible and damaging of suggestions not just for the future of alternative energy, but most importantly, long term food security and consumer health. Look no further than the acknowledgement in their own report:

“These emerging technologies, which are not yet commercially available and whose technical feasibility in many cases is yet to be proved, will almost certainly be the next generation of oils.”

Their claims of alternative oils as a panacea to the challenge of meeting ever greater vegetable oil demand discredit the exemplary work of the Clinton Global Initiative to date, and the promotion of Ms Sumbo’s success story. While Ms Sumbo and millions of people like her strive to improve their lives through the production of healthy and popular palm oil, they deserve better than being undermined by such irresponsible projections and analyses. It is time that the debate over palm oil came back down to Earth and focus on real solutions – just as the palm oil industry does each and every day.