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Agriculture, Food & Nutrition, People, Prosperity, Planet, Asia Pacific

Palm oil’s role in feeding the world

GAR | Sep 20, 2018

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This article was originally published by GAR and is republished with permission.

Food security is a pressing global issue, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation reporting that over 815 million people are chronically undernourished. Palm oil, as an SDG commodity, plays a huge role in feeding the world both directly and indirectly, and will continue to have a significant role to play in tackling this issue head-on.

Alleviating poverty

Palm oil has been a key factor in reducing rural poverty in top producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. The opening of palm oil plantations in rural and remote areas has helped lift the incomes of populations there. About 40 percent of plantation areas in Indonesia are owned by some two million smallholders, and a report by the European Commission estimated that these smallholders earn up to ten times more than other farmers.

By boosting socio-economic development, palm oil has also helped to reduce inequalities between urban and rural populations. It has provided rural populations better access to healthcare and education, helping to further ensure that they and their children have a better quality of life and standard of living.

One of many ways palm oil farming helps smallholders. Source: European Commission Report 2018.

The most productive vegetable oil

In addition to reducing poverty and ensuring that rural communities have income to buy better food, palm oil itself is a key food ingredient. By 2050, there will be 10 billion people to feed. Estimates suggest that is an extra 200.25 million tons of vegetable oil which will be needed to help feed these people. Where will it come from?

If you choose soybean oil, you will need 400 million hectares of farmland. Choosing palm oil on the other hand, will only require 54 million hectares of farmland. It is the most versatile and efficient vegetable oil in the world, yielding more per hectare than any other edible vegetable oil crop (and simultaneously needing the least amount of fertilisers and pesticides).

Of course, we are not suggesting that other vegetable oil crops be stopped from growing, but rather, that palm oil has a key role to play in feeding the world especially as global populations grow and opening new agricultural land becomes less of an option.

A few ways in which palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil. Source: European Commission Report 2018.

Vitamin A fortification in developing countries

There is a high occurrence of Vitamin A deficiency is in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and vegetable oil (like palm oil) is used in many developing countries as a food staple to deliver fat-soluble vitamins, like Vitamin A, to consumers.

Vegetable oils high in unsaturated fatty acids are prone to oxidation, leading to limited Vitamin A stability when fortified. Palm oil’s saturated fatty acid profile makes it semi-solid at room temperature and more stable to oxidation, making it one of the most suitable options for fortification. While the amount of Vitamin A present in the oil upon cooking is still dependent on storage and packaging conditions, in many of these regions, fortified palm oil is used by governments to combat Vitamin A deficiency.

Producing healthier food

Palm oil has a unique composition which makes it trans-fat free. Trans-fat is bad for you, and many health authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), now advise against it because it is clinically proven to increase cardiovascular disease. Palm oil is semi-solid in its naturally-occurring form at room temperature, eliminating the need for partial hydrogenation (which is what causes trans-fatty acids to form), making it naturally trans-fat-free.

Besides being trans-fat free and meeting specific nutritional needs, palm oil has a whole lot of other health benefits. For one, it is a rich source of beta-carotene. Palm oil also contains tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are constituents of the antioxidant Vitamin E. These natural antioxidants act as scavengers of damaging oxygen free radicals. Recent advancements show their biological properties in protecting against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration, oxidative stress and immune regulation.

Palm oil can help in healthier food production techniques.

Given the host of health benefits of palm oil when used as an ingredient in food, and in view of the increasing emphasis on food being free of trans-fat and hydrogenation, palm oil has, and will continue to have, a huge role to play in the production of nutritionally safer products.

That is why we invest in R&D to continuously innovate the production of safe, healthy and delicious food products.

Our people are the ones responsible for driving positive momentum in feeding the world, and Punjung Renjani’s desire to provide healthier food for all is why she became a food technologist. Watch her extraordinary story here.

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