Critical Role of Palm Oil in Enhancing Food Security
Over 1 billion, or 15% of the world still do not have enough food on a regular basis. At the turn of this century, United Nations expounded eight Millennium Development Goals. On top of the list is the goal to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The need to address this important issue was echoed, not too long ago, at the World Summit on Food Security that was held in Rome, Italy in November 2009. Very recently, in April 2010, World Bank launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), which is a new multi-donor trust fund to improve food security and incomes in low-income countries through assistance to agriculture.
What is food security? According to FAO, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an important agricultural crop, which yields three important sources of food, namely palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake. An average of 3.7 tonnes of palm oil, 0.4 tonnes of palm kernel oil and 0.6 tonnes of palm kernel cake is obtainable from one hectare of land. While the first two products can be used for human consumption, such as cooking oil, margarines, shortenings, bakery fats, vanaspati, ice creams and Vitamin E, etc., palm kernel cake is used as an animal feed.
The two major palm oil producers in the world are Indonesia and Malaysia, with outputs of 21.1 and 17.6 million tonnes respectively in 2009. Together, they constitute a magnanimous 85.3% of the world’s production.
Palm oil constitutes the major bulk of the world’s production of oils and fats. It contributed to 27.6% share when its production in 2009 was 45.5 million tonnes. Soyabean ranked second with a production of 35.9 million tonnes or 21.8%, animal fats third with 24.4 million tonnes produced or 14.8% while rapeseed was fourth with an output of 21.5 million tonnes or 13.1%.
There are hurdles to overcome during the pursuit to achieve food security in the future. A major obstacle is the diminishing availability of already scarce arable land. While population increases, the lack of arable land may not permit this to happen as it decreases from 0.75 hectares in 1922 to 0.23 hectares in 2005 and this will decrease further to 0.19 hectares per capita in 2030. An urgent need to use this scarce resource wisely can be realized if palm oil is chosen as the preferred oil over the other major vegetable oils. Due to oil palm’s high land productivity, whereby it can produce 4.1 tonnes versus 0.59, 0.42 and 0.36 tonnes of oil per hectare for rapeseed, sunflower and soyabean respectively, 7 times less land area is needed to obtain the same amount of vegetable oil if palm oil substitutes rapeseed completely.
Similarly, palm oil’s substitution for sunflower and soyabean saves 10 to 11 times more land from being cleared and planted with these two crops. The extra land saved, could then be used to plant other crops or for animal husbandry.
With land scarcity, palm oil’s contribution to ensure food security comes from successful research carried out in Malaysia, whereby clonal oil palm materials, capable of producing 25 to 50% more fresh fruit bunch yield are already planted in the fields. As such, higher land productivity than that obtained currently, can be expected from oil palm in the future, without resorting to felling more new land.
Vegetable oils such as palm, rapeseed, sunflower and soyabean can be used as biofuels. There is concern that there will be competition between these vegetable oils for use as food or fuel. Chatham House, United Kingdom has optimistically projected that 28% of vegetable oils or 57 million tonnes will be used for biofuels in 2015, with the balance of 72% to be used for food. In 2050, 39% of total vegetable oils will be used as fuel and the balance of 61% will be used for food. Such projected large amounts of vegetable oils dedicated for biofuel usage is unlikely to happen.
Progress has been made to convert biomass to biofuel leading to minimal quantities of vegetable oils being used as biofuels. In this respect, palm oil has a sustainability edge over soya, rapeseed and sunflower, as the oil palm, which is a perennial crop, produces large amounts of biomass all year round and these can be used for biofuel. Palm kernel is already used as a fuel source while palm briquettes can be made from empty fruit bunches. Methane from the palm oil effluent ponds is also trapped and used as biogas. Thus, besides ensuring food security, a new business of converting waste to wealth is created in the palm oil industry.
Palm oil can enhance food security by ensuring that the competition between food and fuel is minimal when its biomass is utilized for fuel and, therefore, any price hike will not be the result of such competing demands.
One of the drivers that often derail food security is the inability of the rural population, some of which live below the poverty level, to be able to afford sufficient food. The oil palm is a proven economic crop that has been used successfully to eradicate poverty due to its successful cultivation. The FELDA model in Malaysia bears testimony to such a success.
In conclusion, palm oil is the leader among the major vegetable oils that has the greatest potential to overcome food insecurity. It is capable of doing so in a very sustainable way since it requires the least land to produce the same amount of oil, thus freeing diminishing arable land for the cultivation of other crops or for animal husbandry. It is also proven that oil palm cultivation can help to eradicate rural poverty and hunger, which is one of the primary Millennium Development Goals.
Ensuring adequate supply of edible oils for the world market at affordable prices is very important to low income people of the developing world. Derailing future expansion of palm oil production through the Western Environmental NGO anti-palm oil campaigns will impact food security among the developing country population the most. It will also lead to massive deforestation as 10 times more land would be required to plant competing crops such as soyabean to meet future shortages compared to oil palm cultivation.