Palm oil: The Bigger Picture

The hot debate over oil palm plantations won’t be cooling any time soon, which begs the question: How can Malaysia reconcile environmental concerns with the social and economic benefits derived from palm oil production?

Between them, Malaysia and Indonesia produce 80% of the global supply of palm oil, which is found in a vast range of everyday products, including cooking oils, margarine, bread, soap, vitamin supplements, greases, lubricants and candles. Demand for the environmentally-friendly and versatile oil is set to soar by 50% over the next 10 years, and manufacturers in Europe are lining up to use palm oil in their cars as a clean and cheap alternative biodiesel.

What’s more, the palm tree requires up to 10 times less land than what’s required by other crops such as soya, rapeseed and canola to produce the same tonnage of vegetable oils. So why the fuss, despite the obvious – and numerous – benefits of palm oil production?

global supply of palm oil

Some issues have been highlighted by environmental groups who are concerned about the effect production is having on the natural ecosystem and habitats of wildlife.

Researchers suggest that large chunks of forest land are vanishing in an effort to keep up with demand, and have called on producers in the palm oil industry to place emphasis on sustainability – a call that many industry leaders in Malaysia are heeding in their commitment to assuaging green concerns.

In a bid to address allegations that oil palm plantations are destroying the peat lands of Malaysia, and to highlight the commitment to maintaining environmental standards, Organic Soils Of Malaysia shows how a concerted effort among the Malaysian Government, plantations and conservationists is working to ensure best practices in production, while continuing to meet the growing global demand for the vital resource.

Organic Soils Of Malaysia provides in-depth information on the peat lands of Malaysia, explores the issues surrounding palm oil production, and presents a number of proposals and recommendations to ensure sustainability and conservation of tropical peat lands.

Written by Paramananthan Selliah – an internationally respected Malaysian expert on soil science, geochemistry and biogeography – the book presents an objective view of current practices and suggested areas of improvement, while highlighting the initiatives that are being undertaken to redress present concerns.

A key point, made early in the book’s introduction, is the pressures faced by the Malaysian Government with regard to a rising population, the lack of good arable land, the need for more food, and efforts to eradicate rural poverty.

Paramananthan writes that, due to these pressures, the Government faces a dilemma: “to conserve or to develop lowland peat lands” – a dilemma greatly intensified by the need to produce more biofuels to replace fossil fuels, which are one of the largest single producers of harmful greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming and climate change.

On the conservation of lowland peat lands, the author describes how native communities situated in and around tropical peat lands “live well below the poverty line” and eke out a living by “gathering forest products, fishing and hunting” in the swamps.

Paramananthan suggests that the Government needs to find a balance between conservation and development of peat lands.

A crucial consideration presented touches on the rise in the world’s population, projected to hit nine billion by 2050.

He issues a sobering ultimatum that we can “either clear large areas of forest and plant soya bean, rapeseed etc or clear much less forests to plant oil palm.”

Shining a light on arguments from both sides of the table, Paramananthan urges mutual understanding and a cohesive strategy that works to address the concerns of NGOs and other green groups and meets the increasing worldwide demand for palm oil production.

To meet the world’s need for vegetable oils and other essential products in 2050 presents a stark choice. Governments will be left to choose between planting oil palm, which will require between six and eight million hectares of new plantings, and planting rapeseed or soya, which will mean clearing a staggering 50 to 75 million hectares of new land.

In Paramananthan’s expert opinion: “The choice is clear. Oil palm will be the saviour of the world in the years to come, even if it needs to be planted in organic soils.”

To facilitate additional planting, he advises a multipronged approach which includes the introduction of sustainable practices, an increase of productivity per hectare, and addressing the need to reduce the world’s population growth rate. Otherwise, according to Paramananthan, we will be confronted by a bleak reality: no more forests will be left, meaning starvation will result, which will put humankind’s very survival at stake.


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