The Bad Guy

Who Is The Bad Guy?

17 December, 2021

Since the advent of computers, the digital world is merely a billion streams of different compositions of ones and zeros. In real life, I wish it could be as simple as assigning ones or zeros in this cliché debate – palm oil.

Oil palm is probably the most controversial crop in modern agriculture. The Southeast loves it, and the West hates it until it is banned [1]. The clearing of rainforests is the main reason for such a political ban. It is suggested that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared for oil pam plantation per hour [2], destroying the habitats of some of the most unique species on Earth.

So who is the bad guy here?

“Palm oil industry, duh!”

Banning palm oil as an immediate result of vehement public outrage and extensive deforestation is deemed a no-brainer. If we can restrict the use of palm oil, we could effortlessly reduce the demand for palm oil; therefore, fewer trees will be cut down.

"It's not how you play the game, it's how you place the blame."

Don Simpson, a screenwriter

However, palm oil is used in many everyday products, from cookies to cosmetics. It is estimated that palm oil is contained in nearly half of the products on supermarket shelves [3]. A ban on palm oil means a shift to the use of other oils that could replace the current niche of palm oil. Its versatility and chemical properties are challenging to replicate. Not only is it extremely stable to oxidation [4], it is also highly competitive in terms of cost-effectiveness and productivity. A hectare of oil palm trees can yield 3.3 tonnes of oil, compared to 0.7 t/ha in rapeseed, the second most efficient oil among all crop plants [5]. This would mean that we need five times more land areas to fulfil the world’s current demand for vegetable oils. This sounds like more trees are to be cut down!

Comparison of global oil yields. Source: WWF UK

So who is the bad guy here? Is it still the palm oil industry?

Moreover, if one cares so much about deforestation, they should worry about their diet too, more specifically the beef consumption. Beef and soy production is causing more than two-third of habitat destruction in the world. Over 70% of the production of soy plants are used to feed cattle (hence, do not feel so guilty about drinking soy milk) [6]. Since beef production has a more significant impact on our planet than the palm oil industry, shouldn’t we ban beef too?

Forced labour is another contributing factor to the notorious name of palm oil [7]. The US bans all shipments of palm oil from the largest producer in Malaysia – Sime Darby Plantation Berhad, who allegedly practises forced labour and related abuses on plantations. This ban ignites a reaction to various global companies to follow suit after years of multimillion profiting. Big brands eventually clear the bad names, the stain leaves on palm oil.

So who is the bad guy?

Every year, Malaysians are affected by the fires in Indonesia, sometimes fires in our own country that causes extreme drought and haze due to land conversion from forest to oil palms [8].

Also, every year, the palm oil industry help alleviate hundreds and thousands of impoverished families in rural areas in Malaysia, especially in Sarawak [9].

I sigh. Somehow eating a $119 rib-eye steak in a fancy restaurant is acceptable, but barely making $10 per day for a living from palm oil can be condemned.

There are many shades of the palm oil industry. Solely banning it is not the solution to this complex and intertwined topic, not to mention calling out a bad guy to blame for. Finding an mutually inclusive solution is difficult, so the political blame game becomes the key.

Who is the bad guy? Only if it could be as simple as assigning ones or zeros.

Afterthought: A conversation on palm oil with a professor from my university motivated me to write this short essay. He has projects on sustainable palm oil. This issue reminded me of how palm oil is banned in the EU. I experienced it personally: a western friend of mine doesn't eat nutella because its ingredient has palm oil. I got "interrogated" by a Swedish classmate on the palm oil issue in Malaysia when I was presenting Malaysia's Economy to the class in my summer school programme in Beijing. I did not have a good answer for it. Now I may have.