08/08/05 KUALA LUMPUR, (Bernama) -- Palm oil, a dark yellowish to reddishoil from the fruit of the Elaeis guineensis palm, has benefited countrieslike Malaysia because of its multi-fold economic spin-offs.
This "magic palm" is not native to Malaysia but found its way here in 1870as an ornamental plant. It was only in 1917 that it was cultivatedcommercially.
The versatility of palm oil has been acknowledged by many industries.Besides being edible fat (as cooking oil and margarine), it is also usedfor making soaps and candles, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics (palm-basedanti-wrinkle creams and shampoos), and as an important raw material inoleo-chemicals.
Given the suitable conditions in Malaysia, oil palm has become its leadingagricultural crop. About 3.87 million hectares are planted with 500million oil palms or a third of the country's total cultivated area.
Exports of palm oil brought in a whopping RM30.41 billion to Malaysia lastyear despite strong competition from other palm oil producers and stifftariffs in some importing countries, said Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron,director-general of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.
But bumper earnings had also brought along unease among certain quarters,especially producers of other types of edible oil.
Hence, "below the belt" criticisms on palm oil have surfaced and the mostdevastating is that palm oil promotes heart diseases.
The Washington DC-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)has even labelled it as "environmentally cruel" with claims that oil palmcultivation in Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's number two producer,has caused the natural habitats of the Bornean and Sumatran orang utan,Asian elephant, Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros to disappear.
"Consumers should understand that a seemingly small decision in thiscountry -- what kind of cookie, cracker, or hand lotion to buy -- can havemajor consequences on the other side of the world," said Ellie Brown, awildlife ecologist who had co-authored a report with CSPI executivedirector Michael Jacobson.
But the Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council (MPOPC) is not taking suchaccusations lightly and has countered them with a "blow-by-blow" accounton the points raised.
MPOPC chief executive officer Datuk Harun Siraj has labelled thecontentions as most misinformed, misleading and unjustified and they hadstirred up unfounded fears among consumers.
To dispel the notion that palm oil is harmful, Haron referred to the morethan 140 nutritional studies evaluating palm oil and its components,mostly conducted by the American, European and Australian institutions ofhigh repute, which showed that when palm oil is incorporated into thedaily human diet at World Health Organisation-recommended levels, it doesnot increase the total blood cholesterol or "bad" LDL-cholesterol levels.
"Hence, a palm oil-rich diet does not constitute a risk for coronary heartdisease and is not deleterious to human health," he said.
Palm oil, he explained, is essentially rich in both saturated palmiticacid (45 percent) and monounsaturated oleic acid (40 percent).
In a review of saturated fats published in the highly-regarded AmericanJournal of Clinical Nutrition in September 2004, it has categorised palmoil as a palmitic-oleic rich oil, not solely as a palmitic acid rich oilas mentioned by CSPI.
"This natural combination of palmitic acid and oleic acid in palm oilmakes palm oil a neutral fat in relation to cholesterol metabolism," saidHaron.
He said the campaign against palm oil conveniently ignores these facts andhighlights only the effects of palmitic acid as an isolated saturatedfatty acid that increases blood cholesterol levels.
Human diets, he explained, are not based on individual fatty acids but ona complex mixture of fats and all classes of fatty acids.
"For example, in the American diet, palmitic acid is the major saturatedfatty acid, but it is not sourced from palm oil but from red meat, pork,poultry, and dairy fat and processed foods.
"Palm oil in the American diet constitute less than 2.0 percent of thetotal daily energy intake. The reduction of saturated fat intake in theAmerican diet should therefore target the above-mentioned sources ratherthan palm oil."
Haron also dismissed claims by CSPI that millions would die from heartdiseases at between 35 and 64 years in China and India, two of the world'slargest palm oil importers.
"These statements are ridiculous and are without any scientific basis. Ifwe were to concur with such an erroneous argument, then what could weconclude from the people in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea andNigeria where palm oil is the major, if not the sole source of fats intheir daily diets, and yet they have one of the lowest heart disease ratesin the world?" he asked.
Haron pointed out that the Americans are one of the lowest palm oil usersin the world and yet they have one of the highest heart disease rates.
As for the accusation that oil palm cultivation had affected the naturalhabitats of wild animals, Haron said Malaysia produced nearly 14 milliontonnes of palm oil in 2004, half of the global output, from a mere 3.8million hectares of plantation area.
In contrast, the world's total of oilseeds area is about 221 millionhectares.
About 47.1 percent of Malaysia's land area is under forest at 15.471million hectares while about 11.75 percent of its land area is plantedwith oil palm.
"This 1.75 percent minuscule area under oil palm in Malaysia (out of theglobal oilseeds area of 221 million hectares) is able to produce about 13percent of the global vegetable oils.
"On the other hand, soybeans, which account for 41 percent of the totaloil crop area, contributes only 28 percent of the total vegetable oiloutput, while palm oil accounting for only 4.0 percent of oil crop plantedarea is able to contribute 28 percent.
"Which oil crop is more productive and yielding far more oil on less landgoes without saying!"
Haron said one of the most effective ways of reducing the pressure toopening new land for cultivation in Malaysia is the on-going effort toincrease production efficiency in yield per hectare and oil extraction.
For most of the developed world, whose destruction of their naturalhabitat had been completed much earlier, he said their "existence andsustenance of wildlife is next to nil."
Soybean, for example, being an annual crop needs a flattened vast areawithout a single tree in between to be grown, not to mention the largevolume of chemicals needed.
Palm oil, being a perennial tree crop, has greater bio-diversity thancereals, vegetables and other short term cropping system of the world,said Haron.
A typical oil palm estate teems with 268 species of flora and fauna,including microbes, insects, anthropoids, reptiles, fish, birds and smallmammals. The rearing of cattle, sheep and even deer also adds to thediversity of life in the plantation.
Haron said oil palm plantations had also contributed towards carbonsequestration (or prevention of carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere)and helped to cool the air by providing a moderating effect on the risingglobal temperatures.
For Malaysia, Haron said palm oil is a strategic well-planned agriculturalindustry that has responded positively to the environmental challenge andmany estates are noted for their eco-friendly and good agricultural andmanagement practices.
For the rest of the world, he said palm oil has provided a competitivelypriced and nutritionally wholesome source of energy for millions,including the poor.