The many positive untolds of palm oil

by AHMAD IBRAHIM / pic BLOOMBERG

A HEALTHY diet must include enough intake of fats. A fat-poor diet can lead to health issues. Nutritionists also advocate that the percentage of energy from fats should not exceed 10%. Too much is also unhealthy.

The global demand for edible fats has been growing around 3% yearly, driven by both population growth and the public’s changing diets. Poor people previously tended to eat less fat because they could not afford it, fat being generally more expensive. When palm oil entered the global trade of edible fats around the 80s, the situation changed. More poor people could afford to increase their fat intake. This is because palm oil is always more competitively priced, thanks to the relatively higher yield achieved in palm oil production.

The truth is, palm oil has many virtues that are not widely known and appreciated. This explains why palm oil has been a subject of much ridicule. Such critics mostly come from the competition, and are understandably uncomfortable with palm oil’s meteoric rise in the market.

Malaysian Oil Scientist and Technologist Association (Mosta) president Augustine Ong strongly believes that palm oil is nature’s gift to humanity. Its positive impact on the poor is enough to give that tag to palm oil.

In Malaysia, the palm oil industry has uplifted many oil palm smallholders from poverty. The Felda scheme is often quoted, even within the international community, as a successful poverty alleviation programme that many countries have sought to replicate. Indonesia is among the countries that have benefited.

High oil yields are one aspect of the palm oil success story. Even the current average of four tonnes of oil per ha per year is still below the real potential. Ong believes that with the right research and development, yields can further increase. Theoretically, scientists are looking at 17 or even 19 tonnes if palm kernel oil is included.

According to Ong, one plantation has managed to raise the oil yield to a high of 12 tonnes per hectare. But this is extremely rare. Much depends on the planting material, the agronomic management of the crop, harvesting technique and the oil extraction process. The biggest challenge remains for smallholders who are often short-changed on the planting material.

Palm oil has many other virtues of which not many are aware. Its versatile nature in the manufacture of products makes palm oil stand out over all others. This has much to do with its semi-solid nature, a feature absent from competing vegetable oils. Using technologies such as fractionation does wonders for palm oil.

Only palm oil can rid products of deleterious trans fats. It is unfortunate that some of our own manufacturers do not appreciate this.

Palm oil has found wide applications not just in food products, but increasingly too in the non-food sector such as oleochemicals. As the world races to embrace net zero, many believe that oleochemicals will be the accepted replacement for petrochemicals. It is already happening.

We have yet to touch on the enormous potential of the other by-products, including empty fruit bunches and biogas. Once the commercial value of oil palm biomass is realised, it will further add to the income of smallholders.

Ong feels we are not telling the world enough about the positive nature of palm oil. Whatever we tell the world, he is adamant that it must be grounded in sound science. Admitting that we are under-communicating the many virtues of palm oil, Mosta has taken it upon itself to now lead the charge.

As an ardent believer in palm oil, this is not unexpected from Ong. Even at the ripe old age of past 80, he never tires of pushing for the better recognition of palm oil. Admittedly, NGOs like Mosta are less inhibited in promoting the positive attributes of palm oil. They are truly passionate. If all like-minded NGOs can come together to spearhead such communication efforts, there is no doubt of their positive implications on the commodity. Any support from the government would enhance the effort further.

  • Ahmad Ibrahim is an associate fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre in Universiti Malaya and a member of the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy at UCSI University.