Development, Conservation and Nutritional Aspects of the Oil Palm Industry
Two attempts by Green Members of Parliament (MPs) to pass laws in Australia and France in recent months against the expansion of palm oil consumption have been rejected by mainstream politicians and their governments. This raises questions on the intention of environmental NGOs who use their green political parties and MPs to table anti-palm oil legislations. After failing to legislate against greater palm oil consumption in France, the greenies continued to create negative publicity on palm oil in Belgium and Switzerland in subsequent days. Such persistent campaigns can only reflect the vicious intention of the greenies in wanting to inflict maximum damage to the export of agricultural products of developing countries. There is an urgent need for a sense of fair play when dealing with products of small farmers from developing countries.
Whenever anti-palm oil campaigners from developed countries make deforestation allegations on palm oil, the answer from the palm oil industry will be in the form of a counter question. Malaysia, the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil, has much more forest as a percentage of total land area as compared to France, Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Germany or Switzerland. Why should Malaysian palm oil be punished with discriminatory labeling (due to allegations of deforestation) when these developed countries are the real culprits in terms of past deforestation? It is common for countries to develop a portion of their land for agriculture and other development purposes. Malaysia’s agricultural expansion is no different to the development path that occurred in Europe. We need agriculture to support food production, generate income and employment for our people. This is done through sustainable practices or certification schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Malaysia has more than 50% of its total land area under forests. We use less percentage of our land for agriculture and we produce 10 times more vegetable oil from one hectare of land compared to the Europeans. We welcome our critiques to see how the oil palm industry is managed in Malaysia. Many past visitors have found our agricultural system of oil palm cultivation managed in a far superior way as compared with farms in their countries.
The double talks and allegations by the anti-palm oil NGOs are often questionable as the following statistics will throw light on the facts. Malaysia maintains 56% of its land as permanent forests. With the help of plantation crops, it has up to 80% tree cover as compared to forest cover of 29% for France, 22% for Belgium, 8.8% for Netherlands, 11.8% for UK, 31.7% for Germany and 30.8% for Switzerland. According to FAO statistics, Australia has only 19% of its total area as forest and between 2005 and 2010, the country deforested 4.62 million hectares which is 10 times more as compared to 0.43 million hectares for Malaysia. It is obvious that the NGOs and Senator Xenophon who proposed the anti palm labeling legislation in Australia in early 2011 did not check their facts. If deforestation is their main concern, they should focus on Australia for having deforested extensively and still continues to do so in recent times despite being a developed country with a lower population as compared to Malaysia.
The second argument of the Greenies against palm oil is linking it to a higher content of saturated fats. When palm oil was singled out for discriminatory labeling in Australia, partly for its alleged saturated fat content, I pointed out at the Senate Committee hearing that coconut oil has a higher saturated fat content, but it was not required to be singularly labeled. This omission was an embarrassment to the anti-palm oil campaigners and in subsequent campaigns e.g. in France, the legislative proposal included palm kernel and coconut oil. I again pointed out that the major source of saturated fats in the French food consumption comes from meat, bacon, lard, cheese, milk and butter totaling around 32 kgs per person per year as compared to only 2 kgs or 5.9 % of palm oil in the total saturated fats consumption. Would it not make sense for the French Senator to propose to trim down on the high consumption of animal fats which are loaded with cholesterol and are bad for health rather than denigrate a good oil such as palm oil?
Palm oil being a vegetable oil has no cholesterol. As such, at low levels of consumption, palm oil is an extremely useful component of food as it provides functionality in the food products. Furthermore, reputable studies have shown palm oil to be non cholesterol raising as compared to the habitual western diet. Many studies have shown palm oil to be equal to olive oil or canola oil in its cholesterol response properties. In China, the Institute of Nutrition in Beijing conducted studies in the 1990s comparing palm olein, soyabean oil, peanut oil and lard. The results showed that palm olein performed as well as soyabean oil, but better than peanut oil and lard, which are popular amongst Chinese consumers. For this obvious reason, China has become a major consumer of palm oil. Naturally, similar studies have been carried out in India and Pakistan by their national centre’s of excellence. Palm oil proved to be better than local oilseeds such as groundnut and animal ghee in the respective countries. Consequently, both countries have become major users of palm oil.
Many may not be aware that most of the nutritional research work on palm oil was carried out in the USA. While palm oil was noted to behave as an unsaturated fat in an American publication (AJCN) in 1987, it is the pioneering joint research work at Brandies University in Boston and the MPOB that found that a blend of palm oil and local oils such as soya or canola at roughly 50:50 helps improve the cholesterol ratio (HDL vs. LDL). The results were patented and later commercialized under the Smart Balance Brand. Today Smart Balance is a top selling brand for vegetable oils and fats in the USA with palm oil clearly labeled in the product description. Palm oil functions to increase the HDL or good cholesterol much more than the local oils. This positive contribution is further consolidated by enabling manufacturers to use palm oil to replace hydrogenated fats to produce trans-free product formulations. Like China, India and Pakistan, the US too is a major consumer of palm oil as their own scientists have proven palm oil to be safe and nutritionally acceptable.
Numerous research studies on palm oil have also been done in Europe. One of the early research projects was conducted by Dr Hornstra from the Netherlands. His research revealed that palm oil, although 50 % saturated, does not behave like a saturated fat. Due to many other research studies, palm oil was generously used especially in interesterified blends in Europe to produce trans-free solid fat products such as margarine and shortenings.
Further research has been undertaken to explain why palm oil behaves like an unsaturated fat. The central fatty acid in the palm oil molecule is occupied by an unsaturated fatty acid. Therefore, physiologically, palm oil is absorbed as a monoglyceride of an unsaturated fatty acid. The researchers at Brandies University also showed that as long as more than a threshold level of unsaturated fats is consumed (the threshold level is about 6%), palm oil consumption does not raise cholesterol levels. A daily normal diet of most people will exceed the 6% polyunsaturated fats consumption because of the residual oil present in grains etc, and thus palm oil consumption is not in any way detrimental to health.
It is clear that we have done extensive research to understand the science of palm oil nutrition. NGOs or Green senators should not cast negative aspersion on palm oil and heap condemnations without any scientific evidence to support their allegations. I will be the first person interested to know if any new research results have been found to reverse the highly positive findings on palm oil nutrition that we have observed so far. I believe that it is not possible to change the science of palm oil nutrition by repeatedly proposing legislations without any scientific justification.