The palm oil war
Palm oil is regularly blacklisted in the media and it is coming to the table again at the beginning of the 2019 in a context of economic war between the European Union and Asian producing countries.
For those who did not follow the adventures of palm oil or did not take a position concerning the boycott of Nutella during the last family debates, we give you a little reminder on the “palm oil” issue. “.
A little bit of history
Palm oil comes from the pulp of the fruits of the oil palm (Elaeis Guineensis), native to tropical Africa. The African oil palm was first introduced to Asia by botanists as early as 1848 and the first commercial plantation was established in Sumatra, Indonesia by a Belgian agronomist, Adrien Hallet.
But it is thanks or because of a Frenchman, Henri Fauconnier, that we owe the industrial boom in the cultivation of palm oil at the beginning of the 20th century (1917) in Malaysia, where its exploitation has developed; Indonesia and Malaysia being the main producers of palm oil today, accounting for almost 90% of world production.
Until the 1960s, the dominant crop in Malaysia was the cultivation of rubber, but with the advent of synthetic rubber, the government began a broad diversification policy to reduce its dependence on rubber to promote cultivation of oil palms. While the area under palm cultivation was 54,000 hectares in 1960, it has grown 30 years later to nearly 2,000,000 hectares.
In the 1980s, as long as palm oil production concerned the local economy or even export to Europe for a specific use (soaps, candles) and therefore limited, the environment did not yet seem threatened.
But manufacturers, in the 2000s, quickly understood the value of this cheap oil and abandoned animal fats (especially butter) and more expensive vegetable oils to produce and replaced them with palm oil.
Faced with the growing demand for palm oil from China, India and European countries, producing countries have largely developed this crop for 20 years, via the uncontrolled and massive deforestation of their primary forests and the destruction of ecosystems, flora and fauna, but it remains for them, above all, a major engine of economic growth and an alternative source of fuel.
Oil palm cultivation
The oil palm thrives in areas where the temperature varies from 22°C (minimum) to 33°C (maximum), its cultivation requires at least 5 to 6 hours of sunlight per day and 80% humidity for an optimal growth with uniform annual precipitation, which makes countries like India, for example, despite having a hot climate, unsuitable in terms of annual distribution of precipitation and humidity.
Palm oil is one of the most efficient products in tropical agriculture, the yields are much higher than growing soybeans, for example, while soybeans require 8 times more space. Oil palm cultivation is also a non-GMO crop unlike soybeans.
As palm oil cultivation requires enormous water requirements (200 litres per day per tree, and even more in summer), it is even less suitable for countries where water resource management is already a problem. The palm tree produces fruits all year round from its 3rd year after planting. This implies that during the first three years there is no profitability for the farmers.
As for other intensive crops, it is necessary to use phytosanitary products such as herbicides for weeding (glyphosates), the fight against pests (rhinoceros beetle, mealy-bug) and diseases (rot, wilt, etc.) as well as a regular supply of nutrients and fertilizers.
Slash-and-burn, a method formerly used by the natives, has always existed; it consisted of clearing without endangering the environment because the area allowed per family was limited and the spread of fire controlled.
Since then, with the increase in oil palm cultivation, companies have continued to apply this method, as clearing with mechanical equipment costs twice as much as burning. The fires thus caused release highly toxic fumes into the atmosphere, which deteriorate the air quality and cause many respiratory problems for the inhabitants.
In addition, as operating standards are not always controlled and respected and corruption is still present, the entire palm oil industry is polluting: massive air pollution by black smoke near oil treatment plants and refineries, pollution of waterways…
What is the oil itself?
From a nutritional point of view, is palm oil dangerous for health? Not even ! If consumed in moderation, like all other oils.
Crude, unrefined palm oil is red in color due to its high beta-carotene content. It contains interesting nutrients, vitamins, and around 50% saturated fatty acids compared to 7% for rapeseed oil and 10% for sunflower oil. Consumed in excess, these fatty acids increase the synthesis of bad cholesterol. It is a semi-solid oil at room temperature, which is less difficult to work with than butter (which is 6 times more expensive) and which has good resistance to cooking when used for frying (stability to oxidation).
We can not blame it much, it is part of the composition of many food products developed by the food industry: crisps, pastries, cakes, etc … it is rather all these products that use it that you should fear rather than the oil itself. The question to ask is more “Is Nutella good for your health?” Rather than “Is palm oil (used in Nutella) dangerous to your health?” “. The answer to the second question is NO. I’ll let you answer the first question.
Its non-food use
The major global industrial interest in this super-product, for 20 years (production increased from 15.2 million tonnes in 1995 to 56 million tonnes in 2013), has led to these catastrophic ecological situations in producing countries which see in them primarily their economic interest and sources of development for their poor populations. The same parallels can be drawn in other areas of the world with other types of crops (chocolate in Africa), whenever agriculture becomes predominant and essential to the economic development of a country, its culture and its culture. expansion comes at the expense of its ecosystem.
Contrary to what one might think, palm oil is not only used in the food industry but also in cosmetics where it is present in shampoos, soaps, creams AND especially in biofuels. In 2018, 65% of all palm oil imported into the EU was used for energy, including making biodiesel for cars and trucks.
The awareness of European consumers over the past ten years of the environmental impact of palm oil consumption and their stance against its use has forced European governments to take a stand. But the eternal struggle between peoples’ aspirations for change and the interests of industrial lobbies means that there is always a difference between words and deeds.
Sustainable palm oil
Europe demands that biofuel made from palm oil be of sustainable origin. The main certification in the palm oil market is CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil), it certifies crops produced by palm oil plantations that have been independently audited and certified according to the RSPO (Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil). To meet an urgent need for sustainable palm oil, the Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to ensure the promotion of the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible global standards. It brings together stakeholders in the palm oil industry: palm oil producers, food companies or distributors, manufacturers of consumer goods, retailers, banks and investors, NGOs from protection of the environment and nature (WWF), and development or social NGOs.
RSPO has become the globally recognized standard for sustainable palm oil. In 2020, it claims more than 4,500 members in 94 countries around the world, and the certification of more than 15 million tonnes of palm oil, or nearly 19% of world production.
Some French industrialists who are members of the RSPO: brioche Pasquier, Cémoi, Chanel, Danone, fromagerie Bel, L’Oreal, Michel et Augustin, Savane Brossard, St Hubert.
On theory, this is impressive and we would like to believe it, but this certification is criticized for being just a facade for manufacturers to clear their minds about greenwashing.
Environmental associations criticize some members of using this organization to give themselves ecological credibility while continuing to contribute to the destruction of the forest with impunity.
So where do we stand in 2020 ?
Faced with this environmental damage and under pressure from people and environmental associations, the European Commission chose, in 2015, to limit the use of biofuels from non-renewable sources and plans to abandon the most harmful biofuels by 2030.
We were to see this year, a halt in the importation of palm oil in France, but that was without counting the lobbies and the intervention of French deputies who voted to postpone 2020 to 2026 of the exclusion of palm oil from the list of harmful biofuels (which will therefore continue to benefit from tax advantages like other biofuels). This counter-movement of France seeming to be motivated by not very ecological reasons, indeed, France has big economic interests in not closing the valves too quickly, in particular of its brand new super refinery in the south of France (Total) , one of the largest in Europe. Its activity is regularly denounced by environmental activists, including Greenpeace, which blocked its access at the end of October.
The snake that bites its own tail
Will the ban on palm oil in biofuels in Europe have an impact on deforestation? Experts will tell you that less than 5% of global palm oil production will be affected by this ban and that palm oil production that was assigned to the European Union will simply go to another part of the world without decreasing deforestation.
In addition, it is the small specialized producers who have adapted for the European market, those who have been asked to be RSPO-RED certified, who will be the first to suffer this collateral damage and lose the fruit of their work while other non-virtuous productions will not be affected. Those who have put in the hardest effort against deforestation are not the ones who will ultimately get away with it and the signal from Europe is not going in the right direction.
On the side of the main palm oil producing countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, we take a very negative view of what is to be expected. This ban by the European Union of palm oil is seen as a frontal trade attack and the counteroffensive is underway. Producing countries feeling threatened, in turn threaten retaliation and announce that no trade agreement could be concluded with European countries as long as the threat of a ban on palm oil remains topical. With Indonesia slated to become the world’s 4th largest economy in the next 20 years, amid a global economic war between the United States and China, European countries are not ready to shoot themselves in the foot. The 3 countries, the world’s leading producers of palm oil, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are major buyers of European products, France and Germany would have a lot to lose in an open war with these countries, particularly in the sectors strategic such as civil (Airbus), military (Rafale, Eurofighter) and the automotive sector (Mercedes Benz).
Malaysia accusing European countries of using false arguments in an economic war: “The hostile attitude towards palm oil is the result of aligned interests of NGOs, politicians and European rapeseed producers who cannot not compete with palm oil. “
Just months after announcing our commitments to sustainable development, the EU proposed to ban palm oil for biofuels. In doing so, EU leaders may not have realized the message they unwittingly sent to smallholders in the Third World – that Europe will never buy their palm oil, only their efforts to become sustainability are irrelevant and that this industry through which so many people are trying to get out of poverty must be destroyed to save the planet.
The United Kingdom, fresh out of the European Union, is trying to score points and forge new economic partnerships in Asia, in particular with Malaysia, by placing itself as a mediator with the EU: “Scientific reports from the Oxford University and the International Union for Conservation of Nature suggest the palm oil ban could be disastrous for the environment, shifting demand to the EU’s own biofuel industries, which depend on crops like rapeseed, corn or soybeans – all of which require more land, water and fertilizer. It would be a win-win for everyone. This would help Malaysia become the world’s leading producer of truly sustainable palm oil, and it would open post-Brexit Britain access to thriving Southeast Asian markets. “
As European economies decline, Asian economies soar. By 2030, the Southeast Asian Allies (ASEAN) will become the world’s fourth single market after the EU, the United States and China. In this context, it becomes difficult for European countries to launch into open economic wars with prosperous countries just for reasons of pressure from their opinions. And we know that if things are moving in this or that direction, it is not necessarily due to the goodwill of politicians but rather in response to economic interests and pressure from lobbies.
The choice to boycott palm oil is a personal choice. Everything is neither all white nor all black, but it is necessary to mobilize and put pressure on our manufacturers and our policies so that they act as real actors of sustainable development, and this thanks to your lobbyist tools. : your wallet, your ballot and social networks.