My, How Palm Oil Has Changed

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My, How Palm Oil Has Changed


In 1985, Phil Sokolof started an organization focused on improving the nation's cardiovascular health. Inspired by his own heart attack 19 years earlier when he was only 43, Sokolof started Heart Savers not just as a means to charitably spend his millions, but also as a mouthpiece to preach the gospel of good health and exercise, and ran newspaper ads all over the country with the headline: The Poisoning of America. The main culprit he pointed to was the inclusion of palm oil in our foods.

A lot has changed over the 40 years since then. Today, Biteback is an Indonesian startup that wants to disrupt the $60 billion-plus global palm oil industry again, not with newspaper ads this time, but with insects. The company creates cooking oil using insects, a method that's more environmentally friendly than producing palm oil, and richer in nutrients, due to its high iron levels. Food Tech Connect spoke to Biteback’s founder and CEO Mush’ab Nursantio: “We are working to reduce our dependency on palm oil, which is the key ingredient in 50 percent of all packaged items in the supermarket. It is the most used vegetable oil on the planet, accounting for 65 percent of all vegetable oil traded internationally. Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil and has been clearing enormous amounts of rainforest for palm plantations.” He goes on to say that “insects have healthy fatty-acid properties, are rich in unsaturated fats, and reproduce so rapidly that they outdo palm oil in both yield and efficiency — 150 tonnes/year can be produced in one hectare of land, compared to palm oil, which can only produce 4 tonnes/year in the same area.” Sokolof would be proud.

And so should environmentalists. 

The ease and cheapness of the harvest of palm oil have had devastating environmental consequences, as reported on Munchies. As palm oil production has skyrocketed —in 2013, global production totaled 58 tons — the moist tropical rainforests that palm trees thrive in have been felled to accommodate vast monocultures of palms. Between 1990 and 2010, almost 9 million acres of forest have been cleared in Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea.

That’s bad news for native animals, many of whom were already on endangered-species lists even before the rise of palm-oil cultivation. Borneo’s Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered, possibly down to less than 50 individuals; the area’s pygmy elephants exist only in isolated pockets of protected forest that “may be too small to ensure” their survival, according to the World Wildlife Fund; regal Sumatran tigers are almost gone; and Borneo’s orangutans, one of humans’ closest living relatives, have seen their population decline by more than 50 percent in the past 60 years.  

It’s time for a palm oil replacement.