Palm Oil in the 21st Century

In 2007 Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Colombia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Ecuador were the leading producers of palm oil. Malaysia and Indonesia totaled 80 percent of global production. Palm oil has surpassed even soybean oil in its use as an edible oil. Acre for acre, oil palm produces 3 times more oil than coconut and 10 times more oil than soybeans. Palm oil is the dietary fat of Africa and Southeast Asia as olive oil is the fat of the Mediterranean Basin.

Once regarded with suspicion because it contains saturated fat, palm oil is today deemed a healthy fat. Palm oil helps the body absorb vitamins D, E, and K and the elements calcium and magnesium. Palm oil contains neither trans fat nor cholesterol. Palm oil may protect one against heart disease and cancer, including breast cancer, and premature aging. It may reduce blood pressure and lower the incidence of arteriosclerosis.

Some alternative health practitioners believe that palm oil improves blood circulation and stabilizes the amount of sugar in the blood, combating diabetes. They believe that palm oil strengthens bones, teeth, lungs, the immune system, the eyes, and the liver and that palm oil may improve the function of the brain. Other scientists are skeptical of these claims. In addition to containing antioxidants, palm oil has more vitamin E and beta-carotene than any other food.

In the 21st century, electric power plants in Southeast Asia turned to palm oil to generate electricity. Results were initially promising. The combustion of palm oil did not pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases as does the burning of fossil fuels, but in their enthusiasm to produce more palm oil, farmers in Indonesia, to make room for palm oil trees, have cut down forests and burned peat, polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Because of these factors, Indonesia ranked third in 2007 in the production of greenhouse gases. The loss of these forests to oil palm monoculture has imperiled wildlife by spoiling their habitat.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Charrier, Andre, Michel Jacquot, Serge Hamon, and Dominique Nicolas. Tropical Plant Breeding. Enfield, NH: Science, 2001.

Hartley, C.W. S. The Oil Palm. New York: Longman Scientific and Technical, 1988.

Piggott, C. J. Growing Oil Palms: An Illustrated Guide. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Incorporated Society of Planters, 1990.

 
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