Friday, December 14, 2012

Palm & Soybeans Oil: nutritional facts and biodiversity threats

Figure 1: Harvesting a palm oil tree, credit : Dr Asril Darussamin, RSPO


In the last decade palm oil production has more than doubled worldwide and even tripled in Southeast Asia. It is now dominating the global vegetable oil market with Indonesia (45%) and Malaysia (40%) controlling 85% of palm crude oil outputs. Palm oil is used as a source of vegetable cooking oil in developing countries, is ubiquitous as small amounts in developed countries’ manufactured products and additionally is in UE an energy crop.


Though palm oil plantations represent a limited portion of the deforested areas, they are a disproportionally large source of global warming because they are often established on land converted from swamp forests.  As a consequence the carbon footprint of palm oil plantations is growing due to deforestation and ongoing emissions from drained peat lands which have a high carbon density. Concern about deforestation associated with palm oil plantations has raised limitations to acceptance of palm oil in Europe.

Vegetable oil is an important issue of food policy because food preparations are more and more industrialized with  readymade processed frozen meals or snacks.  Vegetable oil can easily be incorporated as a small amount in meal preparation for human or animal. The choice of palm oil is more an industrial than a nutritional option : it slows oxidisation and improves food texture at a low cost.


Scientific knowledge of nutritional facts has progressed concerning bad fats such as trans fats and saturated fats which are increasing risk of certain diseases such as obesity, stroke and heart disease. Good fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are stabilizing cholesterol levels, heart rhythm and playing a role in the production of estrogen and testosterone. The role of polyunsaturated fat such as omega 3 and 6 is essential because, as for vitamins, human body needs them but cannot produce them and must find them directly from its meals.


Although fats are good for health and energy the size of meal should be limited. Fats have more than twice calories content (9kcal/g) as carbohydrates and protein (4kcal/g). A major changes in our diet comes from the development of the consumption of fats. Between 1950 and 1990, it rose from 28% to 43% of energy intake in developed coutries, along with reduction of complex carbohydrates intake from starchy food.


Given these trends and possible adverse consequences for the health of consumers, it is justified to move towards a more accurate labeling for consumer information and a more proactive policy from governments.



Different type of vegetable oils: production and nutrition value

(See following Figure 2 from Oil World 2007)  


Figure 2: Major vegetable oil  production 2006-2007

Soy is a source of both protein, dietary fiber and energy  from sugar and fat. Most quantities are consumed by livestock: chicken, pigs and cattle eat most of soy bean after the seed has been crushed and  the oil extracted.

In 2005-2006 per capita consumption of vegetable oil averaged 17kg/day and ranged between less than 9-10kg/day (Bangladesh, India), 18kg/day (China), and up to 36-39kg/day (UE, USA). Most edible palm oil is consumed in developing countries.

Palm oil requires less farmland that other vegetable oils but taking into account the production-related protein and sugar having a high nutritional value as, the overall yield ratio from soy to palm oil is 1 to 4 and not of 1 to 10 (cf. World Figure Oil from 2007). Additionally there is the system of crop rotations where soy or sunflowers are grown alternatively with corn or wheat cereal to regenerate soil nutrients and reduce fertilizer or pest control.


Figure 3: Major vegetable oil fruit/seed composition dry weight in  %


Nutrition aspects of palm oil compared with others staple oil could be resumed as following:



  • In a context of a western diet with 40% of total calories supplied from one single type of vegetable oil: palm oil is hypercholesterolemic relative to high unsaturated fat oil like soybean or sunflower (See following figure 4) .
  • However with a diet with 30% of total calories supplied from fat and saturated fat acids (SFA) limited to 10% of total calories, the cholesterol raising attitude is muted or has disappeared.   
  • Fractionation of palm oil  can give rise to stearin palm (higher quantities of saturated fat) and olein palm oil with slightly higher quantities of mono and poly unsaturated fats. 
  • Soybean, sunflower and rapeseed (canola) oils have a greater nutritional value than palm oil due to the lower proportion of saturated fatty acids. However they are more liquid and when incorporated to processed meal require post-processing (hydrogenation) that may produce trans unsaturated fat.

Figure 4: Fat composition %


The future of vegetable oil production



The assumptions are the following:

  • Daily energy intake 3000kcal/head in 2050 (higher than the HHS/USDA 2005 recommendations);
  • Fat should make up at least 25% in 2050 (dietary recommendations:  at least 20% for women with reproductive age and no more than 30% for individuals with a sedentary style-life); 
  • 55% of dietary fat are from vegetable oil  (now  59% for developing countries  and 46% for industrialized and transition countries)

Altogether the daily consumption of vegetable oil –including 17% of traditional non edible uses (detergent, cosmetic) - could by 2050 average 25kg per person. Less developed countries should catch up from 10 to 25kg per capita and developed countries continue their growth at the present trend. Including a population growth up to 9,2 bil in 2050 (+40% from 2005), total vegetable oil  production should grow from 110 mil ton in 2005 to 240 mil ton in 2050.


Figure 5: Prevision of vegetable oil productions 2005-2050




Concerning the mix of the main vegetable oils there are three considerations:

  • Palm oil is the marginal oil due to the fact that it is a unique product addressing the fat market alone with the highest yield per ha; as such it might cover any additional requirement.
  • Soyabean, rapeseed and sunflower products are addressing a mix of markets:  sugar, animal-meal, fat ; among interrelated products  these vegetable oil  have to be sold anyway; the overall  yield per ha is constrained by the crop areas available.
  • We have used the projection from R.H.V. CORLEY but with a final correction concerning rapeseed, sunflower and other oil supposed to be slightly increasing on the period (See Figure 5 above).


Tropical palm oil and soybeans plantations growing threat to global warming and biodiversity


(See: Report “The Root of the Problem” by Union of the Concerned Scientists- June 2011)






Soy bean and the Amazon rain forest



Although it has been growing in East Asia for millennia, it was only in the 20th century that Soy expanded and became a major crop- mostly in the USA and Argentina- as a source of protein for cattle. Pushed by the need for more cattle protein, the Brazilian  soy production progressed Northway into the “Cerrado” and in the Amazon rain forest when new varieties and methods of cultivation had been adapted.


After the rain forest had been deforested up to 2.7 mil ha during the 2003-2004 crop, Brazil was by 2005 the largest soybean exporter in the world. Academics & environmentalists raised the alarm of the growing threat to the rainforest, with 2006 Green Peace Report “Eating up the Amazon” focusing particularly on large scale commercial agro businesses Cargill and Mac Donald’s. 


The Brazilian Association of Soy Industries (ABIOVE) and the National Association of Cereals Exporters (ANEC) announced a moratorium on deforestation prohibiting buying soybeans from Amazon farm land deforested after June 2006.The moratorium has been in place for 6 years to date. The Brazilian soy production areas continue to grow (2010: 24 mil ha) but not at the expense of the Amazon. 


Together USA, Brazil and Argentina produce 80% of the worldwide soy mostly as a  protein for livestock.



Palm oil and the tropical Asian rain forest


During the 1990-2005 period at least 55% of plantation expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia entailed deliberate forest clearing (Koh and Wilcove 2008). Large palm oil plantations in Indonesia have been established in forested land leased to influential Indonesian group (Sinar Mas Group). Selling the timber harvested while clearing land generated the capital needed to establish the palm oil plantation. The combination of logging followed by palm oil plantation is one of the most profitable option for the tropical forest exploitation anywhere. Deforestation is seen as a small price to pay for the profit made by rural growers and workers. Substantial further expansion is planned.


In the 1992 Rio Summit, Malaysia pledged to preserve 50% of its forests and have exceeded its own target having 56% currently for both peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak Sabah in Borneo island.


In peninsula Malaysia, the fragmentation of natural forest cover is an environmental issue. Between 1954 and 2000 there had been a decrease of natural forest from 9.5 mil ha (72% of total peninsula area) to 6.0 mil ha (45% ).


But in a recent article (See: "Go for just 33pc forest cover" in NewStraitsTimes 4 Nov. 2012) the CEO of the Malaysian Palm Council expressed that "Therefore, the 56% forest area is non-sustainable. If Malaysia aspires to be a developed country, it has to follow other developed countries by reducing its forest to a more sustainable ratio such as 33%".


The mountain ranges running down the centre of the peninsula are heavily forested. The Central Forest Spine (CFS) is a master program being implemented  with the view to enable wildlife in the country to continue to strive for future generations. Under the plan, four major but isolated forest complexes will be connected through an artificial network of 37 linkages (See: "Why the Central Forest Spine is important" in NewStraitsTimes  7 Oct. 2012). 


RSPO the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil  is a non-for-profit organization created in 2003 which secretariat is located in Kuala Lumpur. It is an association of growers, industrial users and NGO who want to promote sustainable palm oil. But after 9 years only a small part of production is certified  as compliant with its voluntary standards: the current estimated annual production capacity of sustainable certified palm oil production is 7.2 mil ton, about 14% of global palm oil production. The present standards (RSPO 2007) require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be conducted and include some provisions regarding High Conservative Value (HCV) forests. The RSPO has recommended a maximum rate of carbon emission per ton of CPO in 2009. This would rule out the conversion of forests or peat swamps with high carbon density.


In conclusion as in the Brazilian soy Amazon moratorium example, Southeast Asian palm oil in the future may not be a driver of tropical forest deforestation, a major source of global warming emissions and a threat to wildlife and biodiversity. The Indonesian and Malaysian stakeholders can demonstrate a workable model for a low carbon and wildlife friendly development of their export oriented agriculture model if they choose to proceed with consistency the various global policies they have already planned.