Are We Junking The Forest For Poor Nutrition? An inquiry into the palm oil industry and junk food

This Article was also published in Perpectives Asia #5: Politics of Food

Palm oil production in Southeast Asia

The oil palm is one of the most efficient oil crops in the world, yielding several times the amount produced by other major oil-bearing crops. Its high productivity, competitive price, accessibility for poor households, and versatile uses have driven exponential growth over the past 30 years (USDA-FAS 2009) and secured its place as one of the most important resources in the food industry today. Approximately 80% of globally produced palm oil is used for cooking or the production of processed food such as cookies, potato chips and instant noodles. This widespread consumption of palm oil has fueled its development in tropical Southeast Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia leading the way in global production.

Area of oil palm expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia

The amount of land dedicated to oil palm cultivation has grown radically in the last decades: In Malaysia the area increased from 43,000 ha in 1961 to 4.7 million ha in 2014, while in Indonesia the cultivated area has gone  from 70,000 ha to 7.4 million ha over the same time period. This rapid expansion has been in part the result of state policies promoting the palm oil industry as a way of economic development.  At the local level, smallholder tree crop plantings were used to fight poverty in rural areas and at the national level, governments attracted foreign private investments through market-liberalization to diversify exports. Undoubtedly, the development of the oil palm industry boosted national and regional economies, and has played an important role in providing employment; however, the manner in which oil palm plantations have been developed and managed has generated a great deal of controversy due to their immense environmental, social and nutritional impacts.

When the industry began taking off, large tracts of tropical rainforests were leased to companies for monoculture oil palm cultivation. The price for this development was the loss of habitats for a wide range of plants and animal species, many of which are endemic to the region, and the loss of critical ecosystem services such as climate and water regulation. In addition, Indonesia and Malaysia are home to large tracts of peatland, which likewise store a high amount of carbon. The process of clearing peatland to make way for cultivation also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and is one of the main culprits behind the transboundary haze pollution impacting the environment and public health in Southeast Asia.

The social impact of the palm oil industry has been mixed. In Malaysia, the smallholder oil palm sector has been very successful in improving the lives of small farmers and lifting rural people out of poverty. This is the result of carefully crafted state policies, along with institutional and private sector support for the development of the smallholder oil palm sector. In Indonesia, the smallholder sector has been less consistent in its performance and success. Some of the earlier government initiatives that integrated smallholders into joint ventures performed very well and enabled them to move out of poverty and afford a better life. Other partnerships with palm oil companies performed terribly and resulted in the exploitation of local communities, leading some households into debt. In some regions where oil palm development was rejected, communities faced punishment, with villages being burnt down and local community members being harassed. The lack of law enforcement, as well as corruption in some of these rural regions, have also increased the vulnerability of local communities, often leading to unjust legal outcomes in favor of the wealthier and more powerful elites.

Potato chips, an example of junk foods which use palm oil in the process of production

Palm oil and nutrition

Many proponents of the palm oil industry prominently cite the importance of palm oil for food security among poor and vulnerable households due to its nutritional value. Palm oil is an important source of dietary fat. Fat can be categorized into “good” fats (i.e., unsaturated fats) and “bad” fats (i.e., saturated and trans fats). A high intake of bad fats can increase the risk of heart disease, while the intake of good fats can reduce this risk. Of the bad fats, trans fats are the worst. Palm oil is free of trans fats and has a high level of unsaturated fats, making it a good choice even though it also has high levels of saturated fats. Therefore, palm oil may be preferable to replace vegetable oil that contains trans-fats, especially in processed food items where it helps maintain the sensory characteristics of specific food items (e.g., the texture of doughnuts and crispiness of cookies).

So can palm oil adequately substitute trans-fats in the production of industrial, processed food items that are considered “junk food”? And what would this mean for human and natural life in Southeast Asia? Junk food consumption is already on the rise in Asia. Driving factors for the increased consumption include the integration of the Asian market into the global economy, which has brought with it large inflows of foreign direct investment by transnational food and beverage companies; the “supermarketization” of the region, where food is now distributed through supermarkets rather than fresh markets; and the rapid expansion of fast food companies such as McDonalds throughout the region.  Based on a recent analysis, the global demand for vegetable oil used in junk food production from 2001 to 2014 resulted in the expansion of approximately 163,500 to 413,400 ha of oil palm plantations. When projected to 2050, the global demand for vegetable oil just to produce junk food would entail an expansion of approximately 0.5 to 1.3 million ha of oil palm to be planted. Much of this oil palm expansion will occur at the expense of tropical rainforests, unless strict land-use regulations and market initiatives are implemented to avoid tropical deforestation.

Nutrition among local producers

It is particularly egregious if deforestation takes place for the sake of junk food. The expansion of palm oil for the production of industrial, processed food has impacts not only for the final consumers but can also pose a threat to the food security of producers and communities. While some households profited from the palm oil boom and could increase their levels of food security, other households were not able to do so. In fact, the acquisition of land resources by companies has led in some cases to a reduction of land for local agriculture and the displacement of local communities from their traditional way of life. In the Philippines, for instance, traditional livelihoods in Palawan were destroyed, most communities experienced land grabbing without the replacement of their livelihoods and wild palms, an important source of starch during times of emergency (e.g., drought-induced crop failures), were cleared to make way for oil palm cultivation. Pests, such as insects and rats, associated with oil palm development also affected local agriculture, resulting in the loss of productive coconut groves that sustained local livelihoods. Moreover, communities located near forests tend to have a more diverse diet due to a wide range of food items harvested from the forests. As forests are increasingly converted to monoculture oil palm plantations, local agriculture and a diverse set of cultivated plants are lost, forcing local communities and smallholders to depend on unhealthy, purchased industrial food. This leads to a less diverse diet and a reduction in micronutrients, ultimately making local communities more likely to suffer from malnutrition.

Food insecurity is also an issue among laborers on the plantations. There have been cases where laborers were forced to work an extended number of hours without sufficient rest, and wages were denied or overdue. Such exploitation of human labor has definite impacts on their food security as well as health and nutrition.

To balance food security needs, detailed consultations with local communities should be conducted to ensure that free and prior-informed consent is given, and that oil palm developments are beneficial to all stakeholders. An example of an in-depth community consultation was carried out in Liberia, where a large-scale oil palm concession was proposed in the rural landscape. Local communities appreciated the social and physical infrastructure benefits that oil palm development would bring to the region but expressed interest in retaining closed forests, which are a source of bush meat important to local diets. These forests were also habitats for medicinal plants used by local communities and act as an important wind break to protect their crops. The land set aside for local agriculture was insufficient and too distant for local communities, so instead, buffer zones surrounding the oil palm concession were suggested to enable local communities to practice food and cash crop cultivation on communally held land. Such an interactive planning process at the beginning of a development project can be highly beneficial to mitigate both the environmental and social impacts of oil palm cultivation and should be conducted to ensure local food security.

View of oil palm plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

Palming the planet for poor nutrition?

Despite the negative environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry, there is an undeniably high demand for palm oil at a global scale. Recent bans on the use of trans fat in processed foods are likely to fuel further demand since palm oil is a suitable and affordable alternative. It is predicted that by 2050 the demand for palm oil will increase from 74 to 156 million tons a year, based on a scenario where soybean oil consumption remains constant. The increased consumption of food items high in sugars, salts and fats will potentially lead to a rise in non-communicable diseases in developing Asian countries. Therefore, there is a need to improve the end use of palm oil for more nutritious food items that do not contribute to poor health, and to ensure that the production of palm oil by local farmers does not come at the cost of their own food security. Finding an alternative to palm oil would be challenging in Asia, considering its low cost and how accessible it is for poor rural and urban households, so the focus should be placed on improving production and management.

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organization that certifies sustainable palm oil production, takes into consideration environmental and social criteria for the development of oil palm plantations (RSPO 2013) but has yet to include explicit criteria to ensure food security for local producers and plantation laborers. The regulation of processed food consumption, as well as sound land use policies, require new forms of collaboration among ecologists, nutritionists and agronomists to develop strategies for meeting people’s nutritional needs with healthier foods that do not entail further conversion of tropical forests. Asian citizens and governments can do more by increasing their consumption of certified sustainable palm oil and procuring their food products from RSPO-certified producers.  This increases the demand for sustainably produced palm oil and will encourage more producers to follow RSPO guidelines.  

Nevertheless, the RSPO has come under criticism for poor monitoring over the palm oil industry's activities. A useful addition would be to involve civil society/NGOs to work with communities to preemptively identify cultivatable tracts of land that would have minimal environmental and societal impacts. This could strengthen the communities’ negotiating position before an oil palm company begins plantation development."The high-yielding nature of the oil palm will continue to make it a choice crop for vegetable oil production in many tropical countries, making the need even greater to ensure that the method of production does not come at the expense of the environment and local livelihoods. Good governance and adherence to rigorous environmental and social impact assessments are necessary to improve future oil palm development in the tropics. Palming the planet for poor nutrition needs to be changed for better use of resources as well as better nutrition of people.


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