Saturday, 16 February 2013

Red Palm Oil: Biodiesel, Food, and Orangutans

Oil palm fruits, courtesy of Mark's Fruit Crops
Yesterday a red oil caught my eye at the health food store. Red Palm Oil. 

I had never seen anything like it, unless...could it be the same oil I saw being refined on the pacific coast of Costa Rica? After a little research, I learned this red oil was the same oil. It comes from the African Oil Palm. If you have taken a trip around Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio beach you will have seen these palms.

Before yesterday, I didn't know this red oil was used for cooking. I was only familiar with its use as a biodiesel (diesel made from animal or vegetable oils). Biodiesel is one of the reasons Costa Rica is growing these palms. In the Costa Rican countryside I've been intrigued by rickety trucks whose beds are filled with the oil palms' bright red fruits. These oily fruits are hauled to mills to be refined into oil that can substitute diesel. 

On one occasion I passed an oil palm plantation with a few friends who were on vacation in Costa Rica. My friends commented on how they knew they were in the tropics because of all the palms decorating the landscape. My friends were right, these palms are from the tropics, but not tropical America. These are native to West Africa and commonly called African oil palms (Elaeis guineesis). 

I'm still curious why these palms' fruits are used for fuel. The fruits don't look that big, they are only slightly larger than an acorn. It seems it would take a lot of fruits to make enough oil to fuel anything. But, to my surprise it appears these fruits do produce large oil yields, this is because they produce a lot of fruits all year round. So if you have palms you have oil. Another reason this red oil was suggested as a popular fuel is that the economic cost of producing palm oil is less than that of crude oil. Although palm oil has promise as a greener alternative to crude oil, it looks like it is not green-enough to make it full-swing on the oil market

There has been no problem however, selling red oil on the food market. It appears red palm oil - not to be confused with coconut oil -  is the world's most consumed vegetable oil. This was news to me.
Oil palm plantation, courtesy of WikiSabah News
Is palm-oil an environmentally-friendly diesel or food crop? Environmental advocates say no to either. Palm oil plantations use a lot of pesticides. And, like I saw in Costa Rica, they require a lot of land. I remember driving for more than an hour with nothing but oil palms in sight. Growing oil palms as a cash crop for export is no different than growing other plants such as sugarcane, soy beans, or bananas; the more you can fit in an acre the better. But, the more plants you pack into an acre and the more pesticides you apply, the faster the soils lose nutrients and the faster the lands will degrade. 

Poor land-use practices are characteristic of growing cash-crops to sell on the international market. But, these poor-land use practices did not catch people's attention on a large scale until the orangutan got involved. An outcry went global when people realized rain forests were being cleared to make room to plant oil palms in Borneo and Sumatra, and these lowland forests are the only place you'll find the orangutan. 

If oil palm plantations are not environmentally or orangutan friendly, why haven't people stopped farming oil palms?

Researchers from the School of Economics at the University of Queensland say it all comes down to money and this palm is making a lot of it. So, we shouldn't expect to see its plantations disappear anytime soon. Fortunately, researchers have been thinking about alternatives to ease the orangutan-oil palm conflict. For example, there has been recommendations that governments only allow people to grow palms on lands previously used for agriculture, not in orangutan-inhabited forests. But, as I see it, the future for orangutans does not look too bright.

Is there any red palm oil worth eating?

As with many foods, there are different ways to make them, some more sustainable than others. Although the large-scale oil palm plantations don't seem to be environmentally friendly in Costa Rica or in Borneo, the oil palm has been cultivated sustainably elsewhere. As I mentioned earlier, this plant is native to West Africa and people there have harvested its oil for centuries in non-contaminating and traditional ways

The red oil I found was produced organically in Brazil and the company's website states it was done in a sustainable manner. Palm oil is reported to be rich in vitamin E, carotenoids, and healthy fats. For me, the health benefits don't outweigh the carbon footprint incurred by importing this oil to North America, although I do look forward to tasting it somewhere where it is produced locally. 

For more info:

Swarna Nantha, H., & Tisdell, C. (2008). The orangutan–oil palm conflict: economic constraints and opportunities for conservation Biodiversity and Conservation, 18 (2), 487-502 DOI: 10.1007/s10531-008-9512-3

1 comment:

  1. Great article! My family and I live in costa rica and own a company that maintains foreign investment palm farms. We also operate a brokerage firm that makes buying and selling properties easy in costa rica. For more info please visit or email!