What’s Cooking In Your Oil Pot?

“Humanity’s greed seldom respects boundaries. But even when such boundaries are finally recognized, it often may be too late”. This also rings up the quote from Sir David Attenborough, “I’ve had the most extraordinary life. It is only now that I appreciate how extraordinary”.

News clippings reported the market turbulence of vegetable oils worldwide

Curiously these quotes now seem very apt, as the world screams shortages of cooking oils brought forth by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Media expose of the rows and rows of empty supermarket shelves as a result of the disrupted edible oil supply chain are a grim reminder of this current global dilemma. Sum up these and we should already anticipate the dark clouds at the horizon’s edge that threaten food security in many nations around the world via edible and cooking oil shortages.

Step back and ponder, because these scenarios are not solely the result of the ongoing war in the European continent but were also in reality cemented by decades of a different war waged by the environmental NGOs against tropical oils. Add to these the policy “tangos”, endorsed by legislators in many Western countries, sold on saving the world’s climate by diverting food grade edible oils into biodiesel as a primary component of their renewable energy mandates. Well, in the current day, all these have gone horribly wrong.

To understand, global oils and fats production in 2021 was 241.4 Million MT and overall consumption actually matched this figure at 241.5 Million MT, creating a rather neat balance in the supply chain and trade. In these overall matrices, palm, soya and sunflower oils accounted for 32%, 25%, and 8% respectively or nearly 157 Million MT. We can clearly recall that during less complex bygone eras when we just filled our cars and trucks with fossil diesel, these oils were almost entirely used for food, with a smaller portion for oleochemicals and even cosmetics.

With spiralling edible oil prices, nobody has yet calculated the real long term nutritional impact. However for seasoned public health officials the long term below-10% fat calorie diets begin to toll disastrous long term detrimental health consequences.

With climate friendly mandates, primarily from Europe and the United States, through reduced transport related emissions, nearly 36 Million MT of various edible oils and fats are currently used as biodiesel. The talk of sustainable aviation biodiesel will likely balloon this beyond comprehension.

Whereas under normal trading periods this was welcome, the combination of the war in Ukraine and Covid associated challenges has disrupted crop outputs and created havoc in the global oils and fats supply chain. Most impacted and reported is Europe with supermarket shelves completely emptied of sunflower oil for home and the hotel-catering (HORECA) industry’s consumption.

But the biggest sufferers are the world’s poor who are struggling to purchase even minimal, essential quantities of edible oils because of the spiralling high prices. Their screams and appeals to avoid hunger and malnutrition are especially and loudly heard from Africa, Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. Even under normal times, these continents were typically under consuming their respective WHO recommended nutritional daily quota for oils and fats.

Typically the WHO recommends fat calories should minimally account for 20% of one’s daily caloric intake. However many low income segments of these population have daily access to oils and fats that dips below 12-15% calories. With spiralling edible oil prices, nobody has yet calculated the real long term nutritional impact. However for seasoned public health officials the long term below-10% fat calorie diets begin to toll disastrous long term detrimental health consequences.

Energy spent on falsifying the image of palm oil must cease and collectively producers need to work with NGOs and foreign legislators to better the current yield potential of the already planted acreage. The oil palm which is the highest yielding among the oil crops needs to push its own barriers and reach its true genetic potential.

Even producer and exporter nations are not spared this challenge as reported from Indonesia (the world’s largest palm oil producer and exporter), for example. The Indonesian government has grudgingly taken steps to protect its own population and is trying to ensure affordable palm oil delivery to its masses by restricting refined palm oil exports. While market forces are quick to voice their displeasure at these moves, no one is even mentioning the challenges local authorities face in feeding their own people and hopefully avoiding pockets of malnutrition in this island nation. Unfortunately, the bigger picture of their actions is misunderstood in the marketplace.

In these entire melees, the environmental NGOs seem to have been side-lined. Highly critical about the palm oil industry’s expansion potentials and association with deforestation, they generally called for a boycott of palm products through high strung anti-palm consumer campaigns. The European parliament towing the NGO retorts has similarly taken on a “greener shade” and introduced various legislations that aim to curb tropical deforestation. And oil palm expansion! However, in the current crisis mode, all have gone quiet or more likely are waiting in the side-lines. So far they have not come out with viable solutions for restocking the world’s depleted edible oil supplies and helping avoid the potential catastrophes that are likely to follow.

The NGOs however have created a preference for certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). The likes of RSPO have succeeded in getting key palm oil plantations to comply. They likewise continue spreading their wings to cuddle the oil palm smallholders promising to increase productivity, among many other claimed benefits. Yet, except among intervened and showcased smallholders, oil palm yield among smallholders is stagnating miserably. The true potential of the crop is simply not just a stone’s throw, as the certification bodies would have us believe.

From this author’s perspective, there are crucial overlaps that need to be overcome if a repeat of current edible oil supply chain disruptions does not further escalate into a malnutrition pandemic. Energy spent on falsifying the image of palm oil must cease and collectively producers need to work with NGOs and foreign legislators to better the current yield potential of the already planted acreage. The oil palm which is the highest yielding among the oil crops needs to push its own barriers and reach its true genetic potential. Current global yield averages have stagnated at around 3.75 MT oil per hectare. Even at this rate total palm oil output is about 77 Million MT per annum.

All concerned and even warring parties need to come together to push planted acreage yields to average just 5.0 MT oil per hectare. This could magically push up total palm oil availability to at least 102 Million MT annually. The current bullet riddled edible oil supply chain can be resuscitated and the world’s hungry can be fed at affordable costs. The NGOs too would win since they would have avoided oil palm expansion to the tune of 6.5 million hectares, especially in primary tropical rainforest enclaves. But actions are needed at this stage and not mere words. These actions are also time consuming and will be married to an active replanting schedule. Do we have the courage and persistence to come together to achieve these end points? We have not many choices, in reality!

Simply put and to recap the quotes at the header of this article, we can collectively be instrumental in helping humanity recognize and respect its boundaries in a timely manner and live to appreciate the extraordinary life envisioned by Sir David Attenborough. 

Dr. Kalyana Sundram – Consultant of CPOPC