It is known that palm oil production is bad for the environment, health, rainforest and wildlife, however Wilmar Internationals chairman was recently reported to be cleaning up the industry that made him a billionaire. Kuok Khoon Hong is co-founder and chairman of Wilmar International Ltd which handles almost half of the global palm oil trade, valued around $50 billion in total. Wilmar International has been pressured by environmental activists and shareholders and made a pledge in 2013, No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation, to protect forests, peatlands and communities. While the movement towards sustainable palm production is an improvement, progress is needed towards more sustainable oils that address the larger challenges of environmental, health and social well-being.
Palm oil is a controversial commodity, as it is cheap and versatile yet has negative impact on the environment and is high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol and increases heart disease and stroke risk. Palm oil is used in almost half of supermarket products including bread, ice cream, soap, lipstick and detergent.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighted in an Institute of Medicine report on Promoting Cardiovascular Health in the Developing World shows that calories from palm have increased over 600% (and in some cases up to 2400%!) between 1980 and 2003 in countries including China and South Africa (see table below).
Historically, Indonesia and Malaysia have accounted for the majority of palm oil production, yet recently investors (including Wilmar) have targeted West Africa with criticism from environmentalists as restrictions in Indonesia and Malaysia have increased.
A Healthy Oils Alliance is needed, aimed at replacing palm with healthier and more sustainable oils for cooking, an objective which should be implemented in ways that also generate local employment among smallholder farmers. A model for this type of partnership is PepsiCos collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank in Mexico to support sunflower oil. This type of collaboration will support health and the environment, a need highlighted by many, including Marion Nestle and many major organizations referring to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
With Earth Day taking place around the world today, and Earth Hour celebrations just a few weeks behind, now is the time to take action to address the environmental, health and social effects of palm oil and support a sustainable and profitable future.
Are you aware of how many items in your grocery cart contain palm oil? Would you pay a little more if you knew the products were produced in an environmentally and health friendly way?