Palm Oil: Magical bullet or ticking timebomb?

From cleaning supplies, to cooking products, metal plating to bio-fuel, palm oil is a product with far-reaching possibilities. Its emergence on the global market is a fairly recent one, yet it has become a dominating force for global environmental change as well as economic growth in poorer countries. At first glance, it would seem palm oil is a cure-all for many of the current climatic and economic problems facing our planet; but, like all good things, there are stringent drawbacks to its increasing production.

In the 1950’s changing market demand forced Southeast Asian producers to realize they must diversify their exported products if they were to stay viable in a global market. Palm oil quickly became the answer, and large tracts of land were redeveloped to support the growth and harvesting of the oil palm. The benefits of this plant were quickly realized. It is an ideal foodstuff, healthier and more versatile than other cooking oils, having similar properties to olive oil. Oil derived from the palm kernel is similar to coconut oil in its ideal use in long-life bakery products. Also, palm kernel oil’s fatty-oil content makes it useful for industrial detergents. This is all overshadowed by the oil’s usefulness as a bio-fuel. The Malaysian government set up several agencies to propagate and promote this very useful commodity.

The Immediate result was a significant increase in their GDP, a large reduction in poverty, and a possible solution to the fuel crisis. The downside was a reduction in natural rainforest habitats, threats to already endangered species, and the loss of the use of palm oil as foodstuff for the nations that produce it. This highlights the central problem with palm oil production: Palm oil is useful and so easy to grow that the desire for it overreaches the amount of already fallow land that is needed to cultivate it.

Palm oil can be very useful, but it’s important going further to make sure its production does not harm lands and animals that are essential to our ecosystem. All its possibilities have not been explored and more thought needs to be placed on its environmental impact.