Palm Oil Editors' Note

Palm Oil Editors' Note
Millions of oil palms have been planted in the tropics in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania, and many millions more are being planned for the industrial production of palm oil. Palm oil is used in a wide range of foods, such as bread, margarine, cookies and crackers (where it may be labeled only generically as "vegetable oil"), and in such products as lipstick, toothpaste, and soap." As many as one in ten products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil. Demand is also rapidly growing for palm oil as a source for biodiesel fuel for electric power plants and vehicles, as substitutes for fossil fuels become increasingly attractive. While oil palms can be grown and harvested sustainably for local populations, as has been demonstrated in many parts of Africa and in some countries in South America, problems arise when its industrial scale commercial cultivation requires massive deforestation.

Countries such as Malaysia are developing large scale palm oil biodiesel production for export, mainly to the European Union, where interest in such biofuels is very high. The usual scenario is that rainforests are cut down and burned t make way for palm oil plantations (the severe forest fires in Indonesia in 1997, it should be noted, were triggered by such burning), threatening countless species because of deforestation. Biodiversity is further eroded as a result of the high levels of chemical inputs - herbicides and fertilizers - that these palm tree monocultures require. Most disturbing is the deforestation that has been the consequence of new palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 80 percent of the word's palm oil comes from. A recent report by the Center for Science in the public interest has concluded that palm oil plantation are the main threat to Orangutan survival on the island of Sumatra.

A further problem with palm oil production I Southeast Asia comes from the draining and burning of large areas of peat land to establish new plantations. A study by scientists from two Dutch organizations, Wetlands international and Delft Hydraulics, has concluded that the draining and burning of peat land in Indonesia for palm oil production currently releases, catapulting Indonesia into the position of the world's third leading producer of greenhouse gases.

Deforestation in Malaysia, in part secondary to the proliferation of palm oil plantations, may also have played some role in the outbreak in Malaysia of Nipah virus disease in 1998, causing larger numbers of fruit bats carrying the disease to search for food, outside of the forests, in fruit trees bordering pig farms. With their excreta containing the virus, the bats were able to infect the pigs, which then passed the virus onto people. Such widespread deforestation can also result in the emergence and spread of other vector borne infectious disease carried by mosquitoes and snails.

The interest in palm oil, and in some other tropical oils such as coconut oil, has been fueled in part by concerns about the use of trans-fatty acids, which can raise cholesterol, in food, and the belief that palm oil would not have such effects. Palm oil production may therefore be as unhealthy for human beings as it seems to be in some parts of the world for the environment.

Palm Oil in Malaysia
Often a pollinator's worth to a crop is apparent only when it is missing or added. The story of oil palms in Malaysia illustrates this point. The African oil Palm (elaeis guineensis) was introduced to Malaysia from the forest of Cameroon in West Africa in 1917. At that time, the weevil that pollinated the oil palm was not brought along with the trees. For decades, the oil palm growers of Malaysia relied on expensive, labor-intensive hand pollination, much like the apple growers of Maoxian County in Nepal, as illustrated in the opening figure for this chapter. In 1980. the weevil was imported to Malaysia.

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