Palm oil, an edible oil derived from the fruit of oil palm trees, has and had many uses, for example, as food and in medicine for more than 5000 years. It is the first-ever product to be traded among various countries. Demand for palm oil increased during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where it was used to grease the machinery in the factories. By around 1870, palm oil was the main export of some African countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria, but nowadays its main producers are Indonesia and Malaysia.
Uses of Palm oil
Various soap-based goods are produced by using palm oil as it provides a satisfying lather. Most large-scale manufacturers of processed foods make use of palm oil because it contains a natural preservative which enhances the food’s shelf-life. Moreover, its smooth and creamy character, along with its absence of smell, makes it ideal in many recipes. Palm oil features medicinal properties which enhance liver health, the immune system and even skin nutrition.
Biodiesel is a fuel which is manufactured from palm oil, thereby providing fuel for cars and other means of transport. It is widely used because it is both sustainable and less polluting than petrol. Biodiesel is used in furnaces and boilers to heat buildings and produces far less pollution than fuels like coal and gas. The waste materials (shells and bunches of the palm fruit) which result from the production of palm oil are also used to produce energy.
Further, they are converted into pallets for use as biofuel. After its use in cooking; palm oil is chemically treated to create more biodiesel. In 2007 Disneyland began running its park trains on biodiesel made from its own cooking oils. This means that it is in high demand as a fuel as well as for food, giving rise to the ‘food versus fuel’ debate.
Benefits of Palm oil Production
Compared with other types of oil, palm oil needs half the amount of land to produce the same amount of oil, and so its production is much cheaper than that of other oils. Because of the oil production from the flesh and the kernel, it is a high-yielding crop, which serves profit to the companies who own and manage palm oil plantations. Also, these plantations bring job or employment to local people.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, it is estimated that currently, 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Additionally, the profits from this industry bring further advantages to local people by providing better roads, sewage systems, water supplies, schools and hospitals.
However, palm oil production has its critics too! Despite some claims that palm oil has health benefits, recent research suggests that this may not be the case and that its consumption is linked to increased heart disease. Correspondingly, some palm oil companies develop the land without consulting the people who already live there, or offering them any compensation from their loss of land.
Damage to the Forests and Natural Habitat
Forests are cleared to plant palm oil trees, and this deforestation produces greenhouse gases and is a contributor to global warming. Such deforestation destroys the natural habitat of many animals, making some of them, for example, the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, critically endangered species. However, the Malaysian government in 1992 promised to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations by keeping at least 50% of that beautiful country’s land as forests, so all is not lost.
Efforts made to Increase Awareness
Environmental groups such as “Greenpeace” and “Friends of the Earth” campaign to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding palm oil. They argue that the threat posed to the planet by greenhouse gases outweighs the benefits of switching to biofuels. In 2004, RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) was formed. It outlined the environmental and social criteria with which palm oil companies should comply. By November 2012, it serves wonderful results as RSPO had over 1,000 members! So in the end, the key will be to minimise the negative ones.
Image source: independent.ie
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