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  4. How the world got hooked on palm oil

That same year, the US Food and Drug Administration FDA gave food manufacturers three years to get rid of all trans fats from every margarine, cookie, cake, pie, popcorn, frozen pizza, doughnut and biscuit sold in the US.

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Virtually all of it has now been replaced with palm oil. Where they once cooked with soya oil, palm oil has replaced it. By , Indian imports of palm oil had climbed to nearly 1m tonnes, reaching more than 9m tonnes by Not long after the processed food business discovered the magical properties of palm oil, industries as diverse as personal care products and transport fuel would also begin using it to replace other oils. But just as trans fats were chosen for perceived benefits, only to turn out to be worse than what they had replaced, palm oil was initially adopted in large part for its perceived environmental friendliness.

As palm oil became more widely used in food the world over, it was also replacing animal products in cleaning products and personal care items such as soap, shampoo, lotion and makeup. Historically, soap often came from animal tallow, and shampoo, which originated on the Indian subcontinent, was first made with plant-based surfactants a substance that acts as a detergent, emulsifier or foaming agent.

Later, synthetic ingredients came into favour, with animal tallow joining them in the 20th century. Just as Van Duijn had discovered at Unilever, the composition of palm oil and palm kernel oil made them the perfect substitute.

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Manufacturers looking for alternatives found that palm and palm kernel oils contain the same set of fat types as tallow. No other alternative could provide the same advantages across such a wide range of products. Sayner believes that the BSE outbreak of the early s, when a brain disease among cattle spread to some people who ate beef, triggered a larger shift in consumption habits. The change from animal-based fats to palm oil came with a certain irony.

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  8. In the past, when tallow was used in products such as soaps, a byproduct of the meat industry — animal fat — was put to good use. Although, of course, the meat industry comes with its own environmental harm. A similar thing happened with biofuels — the intent to reduce environmental harm had unintended consequences. In , a European commission report called for increasing the percentage of total energy consumption from renewable sources. But palm has one big advantage over these rival oils: price.

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    Legislative attempts in the west to curb the environmental harm of fossil fuels — the US adopted its own biofuel mandate in — had severe environmental consequences in less developed countries, contributing significantly to global warming. Sustainability criteria were later added — although Oxfam and others have criticised their effectiveness — and earlier this month European commissioners proposed new limits on biofuel crops tied to deforestation. But the damage had already been done. T he oil palm is blessed with many attributes that have helped it on its path to dominance.

    It is perennial and evergreen, enabling year-round production. It is exceptionally efficient at photosynthesis for a perennial tree, and requires less preparation of the soil than other sources of vegetable oils, reducing costs. Most importantly, it gives the highest yield per acre of any oilseed crop — almost five times as much oil per acre as rapeseed, almost six times as much as sunflower and more than eight times as much as soybeans.

    Boycotts of palm oil will only lead to its replacement by other crops needing far more farmland and likely more deforestation. Davidson had come to British Malaya in at the age of 20 to work on a Unilever plantation. Four years later, the company transferred him to Cameroon. The oil palm originated in west Africa, and had been introduced from there to Malaysia in In Cameroon, Davidson noticed that insects resembling rice weevils surrounded palm fruits. In Malaya, the plantations were employing hundreds of people to hand-pollinate the flowers, yet pollination occurred more efficiently in Cameroon.

    When Unilever sent Davidson back to Malaya now Malaysia in , he told his bosses he thought the Malaysian industry was going about pollination all wrong, and that insects were the natural pollinators of oil palm. He recruited three entomologists, led by the Pakistani scientist Rahman Syed, who travelled to Cameroon to investigate.

    Results were seen immediately, with no adverse effects, and the pollinating weevils were distributed across Malaysia. The following year, the country saw an increase in yield of , tonnes of palm oil and , tonnes of palm kernels. As yields climbed, and the cost of labour to manually pollinate the trees was more efficiently deployed for picking the fruit, there was an explosion in the volume of land devoted to oil-palm plantations. Davidson had radically changed the future of Malaysia and Indonesia. Rubber had been a key crop, but with prices falling, the government initiated a programme to replace rubber plantations with oil palm.

    In , Malaysia provided palm oil producers with a series of tax breaks. Industry subsequently invested heavily in milling technology to extract the oil from the fruit. In the early s, fractionation was developed, expanding the applications of palm oil for both food and other uses. More recently, plantation owners have found profitable uses for waste such as empty fruit bunches, palm fronds, palm fruit peels, and palm kernel shells.

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    Mill effluent that was once dumped into nearby streams now produces electricity. But the push for increased palm oil production has not only come from inside Malaysia and Indonesia. World Bank policies in the s encouraged the Indonesian government to expand palm among small farmers. The measures further incentivised expansion of palm plantations. Forests destroyed for oil palm plantations are among the most carbon-rich in the world.

    When they are burned, that carbon is released. Palm oil now accounts for In October, at the European Palm Oil Association meeting in Madrid, government officials from the two countries trumpeted the successes in poverty reduction they had achieved thanks to palm oil though growers in Indonesia, at least, have disputed th ese claims, calling on government and industry to do more for farmers independent of the big plantations.

    Officials further insisted that deforestation was being halted and sustainability achieved, even as another speaker told the attendees deforestation had actually increased in some areas over the previous decade. Commodity-producing countries need only answer to their buyers, though, while those buyers must respond to consumers. As the outcry spread, and concern rose among producers that the continued deforestation would become a risk to their reputations, the World Wildlife Federation that year convinced a small number of palm growers, manufacturers and retailers to establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

    It is extraordinarily difficult to make sure that palm oil is being sustainably produced. A single palm oil mill — there are hundreds in Malaysia alone — can buy fruit from a multitude of suppliers, and with all its formulations and derivatives, palm oil has one of the most complicated supply chains of any ingredient. Even when the sustainability certification system is working as it is supposed to, environmentalists have criticised such programmes. The RSPO says having less strict certification criteria encourages participation, the hope being that manufacturers of retail products will ramp up to higher levels once they see they can sell certified palm oil for a higher price.

    RSPO is widely viewed by environmentalists as the most robust of several certification systems and encourages manufacturers to use RSPO-certified oil. The other hope for halting deforestation for palm is increasing yields, the idea being that if more oil can come from existing plantations it will obviate the need to expand the planting area into biodiverse forest.

    As trees reach the end of their productive life of years, they could be replaced by more prolific strains. There is no easy solution. Replacing palm with other oils will only accelerate deforestation, since none of its competitors boast anywhere near its yield per unit of land: palm accounts for 6. Palm oil has become ubiquitous because it is the perfect ingredient for a number of growing industries, the perfect export for developing economies, and the perfect commodity for the globalised economy that links them.

    Wealthy consumers are capitalising on the cheap labour and valuable rainforest that developing nations have in abundance and are willing to part with at a discount to accelerate their economic growth. If things continue, the forests and their creatures will be gone, and the cost of labour will increase as some workers move up the economic ladder and realise there are better things they could be doing than picking fruit. Palm oil producers and consumers will be left with nothing.

    Products that are sustainable are those produced and consumed locally; when buyers are able to witness the production process, they will demand that it occur in line with their values. Changing that may require more than a little magic. The English for Academic Purposes Presessional course is for international students who have a conditional offer to study at the University, but who do not currently meet the English language requirements.

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      How the world got hooked on palm oil

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