Sunday, February 21, 2010

Palm oil: A Crop of Peace & Prosperity

In an earlier article, I highlighted the fact that science is on the side of palm oil - be it in the area of nutrition, biofuel or global warming. There is enough scientific evidence to defend palm oil’s status as a nutritious food oil. Recently a meta analysis research publication confirmed that saturates (palm oil is 50 % saturated) are not associated with Conorary Heart Diseases (CHD), stroke or heart attacks.

What about allegations linking palm oil to deforestation?

There is an earlier definition by a FAO experts meeting (2005) that qualifies oil palm as a forest plantation. Forest plantation is defined as “forest stand in which trees have been established by planting or/and deliberate seeding or coppicing with either native species or non-native species that meet all the following criteria, namely, one or two or few species, even-aged and regular spacing.”

Recently, the anti- palm oil NGOs voiced their frustration at a leaked EU document that recognizes oil palm as a forest plantation. It is highly likely that any new definition created, will qualify oil palm to be regarded as a forest plantation. NGOs are becoming desperate in their criticism as they refuse to face the facts and remain detached from reality. Unfounded allegations will only mean that it will be more difficult for them to defend their statements. For e.g. a reporter from the BBC was quoted as saying that Sarawak has only 3 % pristine forest left. In reality, Sarawak has more than 60% of its land as permanent forest reserve!. Since most of the outrageous statements are coming from the UK and Australia, there must be something wrong with their perception of palm oil. I will be meeting the British High Commissioner soon to enquire why their NGOs do not use good science in persuing their agenda and criticisms.

There were mixed responses from readers whenever positive claims were made on palm oil. The skeptics found it hard to believe that palm oil is an excellent product. Some would go for the usual character assassination of me to highlight their viewpoint. Mostly, it is due to lack of awareness that prompts readers to be influenced into an anti-palm oil stance. There are, on the other hand, numerous supporters who want me to continue explaining to the stakeholders the issues confronting the Malaysian palm oil industry.

Latest published paper confirms saturated fats are not associated with coronary heart diseases (CHD), stroke, or heart attacks

I have come a long way to be able to share my point of view on palm oil without fear or favour. I was with the then Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM) and the present Malaysian Palm Oil Board(MPOB) for 27 years, spending half of that time spearheading the organsiation as the Director General and helping to lead and commission research projects on all aspects of the palm oil industry. This included some 160 nutritional research studies in various centers of excellence in major consuming countries of the world. After following the developments of nutritional research on palm oil and other oils and fats, reading many research papers and listening to many conferences on the subject, I am not surprised to read the latest findings in the paper which concludes that saturated fats are not found to be associated with increased risks of CHD, stroke or heart attack.

Many nutritional research projects on the comparative effects of palm oil had to be carried out in the past to verify a finding pointed out to us by an expert from the Food and Drug Authority(FDA) in the USA that “although palm oil has about 50 % saturated fatty acids in its composition, it does not behave like a saturated fat in its cholesterol raising effects” based on a publication in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) in July, 1987. An explanation for this finding was discovered after numerous studies , namely that in the presence of a few percent of essential fatty acids( polyunsaturated fatty acids ), palm oil is not cholesterol raising in its effects.
In practice, most diets would have a few percent of these essential fatty acids (EFAs) present as they are naturally found in a variety of food sources including seeds and grains, and thus palm oil will perform well in most situations where the needed EFAs are likely to be present.

We have gone beyond the expectations of our stakeholders in pursuing the opportunity for commercialising the good nutritional attributes of palm oil. We knew from our research that palm oil helps to raise the good HDL cholesterol. We also know from previous studies that in the presence of soft oils (i.e. sufficient EFAs) palm oil will not raise cholesterol levels. Combining the two findings enables a new formulation to be tested in a clinical trial in the USA where a ratio of 50% palm oil and soft oils or similar blends were found to improve the good HDL to bad LDL cholesterol ratio in the participants. The result was patented and approval of FDA was obtained to allow such fat blend products formulated according to this finding to be labeled with the cholesterol ratio improvement claim. When the market was hit by the trans-fatty acids ban due to its adverse effect on cholesterol, palm oil became the preferred choice for use especially in solid fat products in the USA.

While allegations are made to smear palm oil as unhealthy, these are mere generalisations on the unhealthy role of saturated fatty acids. Palm oil is linked to it because it is regarded as a saturated fat. There were no references made to actual nutritional studies on any detrimental effects of palm oil in the diet. Now that a new published study totally refutes any association of saturated fats with CHD or stroke, it will be hard for opponents of palm oil to carry on smearing it as unhealthy because of its saturated fats content. On the other hand, palm oil has the endorsement of the FDA to show that its blend improves cholesterol ratio of the subjects.

Palm oil provides functionality which is not possible with liquid soft oils

For solid fat products, palm oil is able to deliver the functionality needed to make shortenings for baking breads and cakes or in the production of margarine. Liquid oils such as soyabean and rapeseed oils are unable to produce solid shortenings unless they are hydrogenated which would either turn them into fully saturated fats or would have the health harming trans fatty acids created through the required partial hydrogenation process. Palm oil thus saves the food industry from collapsing due to the lack of fats supply at affordable prices. In addition, the superior (nutritional) claim by palm oil blends enables the market to use palm oil without any guilt in case the past negative stigma brought by the anti-palm oil campaigns of the 1980s influences consumers. With a beneficial nutritional claim and excellent functionality, palm oil is without rivals in the market place. This is consolidated by its competitive price, through discounts to other oils and fats because palm oil is 10 times higher yielding as compared to other oils. It is rather unethical for opponents of palm oil to now discourage its widespread consumption in food because this would mean denying consumers the benefits of a nutritionally and functionally proven product that is also competitively priced.

Palm oil qualifies as both agricultural and forest plantation

The versatility of palm oil is always overwhelming to new comers. Palm oil is only 10 % of the output biomass generated by the oil palm plantations on a dry weight basis. The usable residual biomass fiber produced per hectare per year on an oil palm plantation is often much more than that of planted or natural forests. Some oil palm plantations are already extracting lumber from the oil palm trunks; the trunks can also be used to produce veneer for making plywood, while fiber from the fronds, trunks or empty bunches are increasingly being used to make medium density fiber board’s (MDF). From the perspective of fiber production and utilisation, the oil palm plantation is no different from other forest plantations.

The EU definition of forest plantations as an area that is covered with continuous canopy of trees that can grow to several meters will certainly be fulfilled by an oil palm plantation. It is not difficult to figure out why the oil palm plantation is often a better forest plantation than other forest systems. For a start, the oil palm is a forest species commonly found in the jungles of tropical Africa and by planting the oil palm in a triangular system to maximise the absorption of sunlight in a plantation, canopy cover is maximised. The oil palm happens to be a prolific synthesis of biomass and by planting the population of elite palm trees in an area, the oil palms above average performance will be better than other forest systems where trees are a mixture of elite and non elite performers as most are not prolific synthesis of biomass. While waiting for the palm trunks to mature in a 25 year period like other forest species, fiber products are obtainable continuously throughout the year from the empty fruit bunches and fronds. Such a high productivity of useable biomass cannot be matched by most forest systems.

Oil palm – first an agricultural crop and then a forest plantation

Developing countries like Malaysia have their sovereign right to dedicate part of their land for agricultural purposes. It happens that oil palm can grow well in Malaysia and 66 % of the agricultural land ( or 13 % of the country’s area) is grown with oil palm. For those concerned with biodiversity preservation, Malaysia has repeatedly announced the setting aside of at least 50% of the country ‘s land area as permanent forests. International agreements only require the setting aside of 10% of a country’s area for purposes of biodiversity conservation. The oil palm cannot be accused of causing deforestation in Malaysia when a large area of forests is being preserved permanently. For every hectare of oil palm, the country preserves four hectares of permanent forest, which is a very healthy balance in terms of land use policy. Even the habitats of the orang utans are preserved as the States of Sabah and Sarawak maintain about 50% or more of their land area under permanent forest. This area should be more than sufficient for the orang utans considering that humans too require land to plant agricultural crops to meet their food requirements. The fact that many orang utans like to foray into the agricultural areas looking for food is a positive contribution of our agricultural crops, which implies that the oil palm not only provides food for the world population but also for the orang utans, birds, squirrels, monkeys and other animals. An important contribution of palm oil is its ability to supply a vital food component (fat or oil) to billions of people around the world while providing millions of jobs, and remunerative income to small farmers and plantation workers in the palm oil producing countries. I was informed recently that in the southern Philippines, oil palm is called the crop of “peace and prosperity” because with a steady source of income from the sales of palm oil, farmers are able to live in peace in a region that was historically plagued by unrests.

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