We need to talk about the African Oil Palm – you will see a lot of it from towards the Southern side of the Thai Southern Line, and all the way down to Singapore.
Compared with your coconut palm, it has a thicker and rougher trunk, and bigger, spikey frons. Depending on the time of year, it may have thick bushels of red nuts.
These reddish nuts are harveted, ground down, the solids separated from the liquids, then the liquids are boiled and distilled to get a basic oil that is then filtered and bleached to get palm oil – the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet.
It contains 50% saturate fat, 40% monounsaturated fat, and 10% polyunsaturted fat. If you’re a nutrition fanatic, you may notice that this is not significantly different to butter. Except it has less saturated fat and no trans fats.
Its also a lot cheaper than butter, and in these days when people are reading food labels more and more, the palm oil industry has been booming as a replacement for butter in industrial food production. You’ve most likely consumed palm oil the last time you ate margarine, ice cream, cookies, crackers, cake mix, instant noodles, pizza dough or non-dairy creamer. You definitely eat palm oil if you like Nutella, KitKats, or Oreos. You might even be consuming palm oil in your lipstick, toothpaste, soap, shampoos, and detergents. In fact, about half of all packaged products sold in supermarket contain it. The meat you eat might also be raised on it.
Packaging will tell you if there’s palm oil, but there are around 25 different names it commonly goes by – everything from the innocuous words like “vegetable oil” or “Palmate”, to obscure words like “sodium kernlate”, “Glyceryl”, or “Elaeis Guineensis” (the latin name for the tree).
Why would food producers try to obscure palm oil content? There’s nothing especially unhealthy about it – no more than other oils at least. But this is how the World Wildlife Fund puts it:
“The uncontrolled clearing of [tropical rainforests] for conventional palm oil plantations has led to widespread loss of these irreplaceable and biodiverse forests. Plantations have also been connected to the destruction of habitat of endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos.”
We are currently travelling through one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. And palm oil has, or is in the process of, wrecking it, unfortunately. It is growing at around 10% per year, and would completely cover Thialand in 40 years if it kept up that rate. We’ve pretty much already lost Peninsular Malaysia, and are in the process of losing Borneo. Thats terrible.
Now there is an argument that having a cash crop like oil palm is great in an otherwise poor rural areas, and I agree. But these plantations aren’t as hippy communes. Around half of Indonesia and Malaysia’s billionaires made their richest with this disaster.
What you can do about it: you could avoid consuming packaged foods, and look for the RSPO Label or the “Green Palm” label on the foods (which indicate the use of oil from more sustainable practices). An even better idea is to just eat less processed foods with saturated fat. Another great idea: partake in some rainforest eco-tourism.
In fact, I have a challenge for you: Get a torch and walk, as quiet as you can, around in a rainforest at night. Any decent eco-lodge or local guide should be able to arrange it. I did this in Borneo. I wasn’t eaten by a tiger. But that walk turned this economist into an environmentalist.