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[Justin Fendos] Palm oil catastrophe

South Korea experiences frequent shifts in culinary trends. One year there was a focus on the health benefits of yams, another there was a rush to flavor everything with the Chinese “mara” spice. Over time, these adventures have made consumers more health-conscious, motivating the search for healthier ingredients. Among the beneficiaries has been palm oil.

The history of palm is an interesting one. In the late 2000s, many countries, including the United States, began to recognize the unsustainability of fossil fuels, prompting investments in the development of biofuels. Various strategies were implemented, some relying on plant-based ethanol, others on biomass or plant-based oils.

A key area of success was the development of biodiesel, which consisted, initially, of mixtures of used industrial and soybean oils. Biodiesel served two purposes: replacing fossil fuels and providing a constructive end for industrial oil, which is often difficult to dispose of.

Within a decade, government programs encouraging biodiesel caused soy prices to skyrocket. This, in turn, motivated biodiesel producers to seek alternatives. One alternative was palm, of which almost 90 percent is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, making it much cheaper than soy.

The sudden demand from Western countries had two effects: one culinary and the other catastrophic. The culinary was generally positive. High demand helped bring palm oil to the attention of health-conscious consumers globally. This was around the same time medical research was beginning to show animal-based products like butter and lard were likely health hazards, incentivizing the use of palm as a cheaper alternative, especially for processed foods like chocolate and pastries. Since palm oil was plant-based, it was blindly assumed to be healthier, a misconception that persists to this day.

As international demand for palm grew, a quiet environmental catastrophe began. To feed the hunger of global markets, farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia began employing aggressive and unregulated slash-and-burn methods to clear land for new plantations. Since 2001, it is estimated 26 million hectares of rainforest have been cleared in Indonesia alone for both palm and other purposes, a staggering 16 percent of its total forest cover. Just for reference, this is an area slightly larger than the UK, which covers about 24 million hectares.

In places like Borneo, rainforests grow on soil rich in peat. Slash-and-burn on such land results in fires with heavy smoke that persist for months, sometimes years. Between August and October of this year, over 600 megatons of CO2 was released from such fires, almost twice the amount released by the entire city of Seoul in a whole year. During this period, about a million Indonesian locals were treated for respiratory ailments related to the fires. The smoke also killed hundreds of thousands of wildlife, most notably orangutans.

To add injury to sadness, recent research has shown palm oil is not much healthier than butter or lard. Studies of cardiovascular health show palm oil may be ever so slightly better but chemical studies have shown carcinogens often make their way into commercial products, leaving cancer outcomes yet unestablished. Although it is true palm oil does have a smaller carbon footprint than butter in the long run, the evisceration of forests in the present easily outdoes any potential future gains.

Despite these problems, Korean consumption of palm oil has increased steadily by about 30 megatons each year since 2009. The greatest motivator has been the cheap price, driving its use in processed foods and restaurant chains. Another has been the lack of awareness among Korean consumers. Not only do they seem unaware of these out-of-sight issues, they also seem to be unaware of how often they consume palm oil. This is despite the Moon administration, in March, agreeing very publicly to increase Malaysian palm oil imports even further.

For the sake of the planet, one can only hope that health-conscious consumers start to take notice and shift the trend in a more sustainable direction.


Justin Fendos
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.

(Revised Dec. 31)
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