Friday, January 31, 2014

Where shall the fat come from?

The four most important agriculture export streams, in value, in the world in 2011 were US$17.6 billion soybeans from United States, palm oil from Malaysia for US$ 17.5 billion,  US$ 17.3 billion palm oil from Indonesia and Brazilian soybeans for US$ 16.3 billion. Notably all four streams are for two oil crops both doubling also as excellent protein feed stock. The consumption of vegetable oils demonstrates the most rapid expansion of all major food categories and they contribute 10 percent of all food calories compared to 5 percent 45 years earlier. The global increase in per capita vegetable oil consumption has been 5.2 percent annually[i]. Most of this growth is attributable to two oils, palm oil and soy bean oils. Earlier, fat and oils were a rich man’s food in a similar way as sugar was a rich man’s food until the large-scale sugar plantations were established. Now with extremely large scale soybean and palm oil plantations price of vegetable oil has gone down considerably and calories from vegetable oil is almost as affordable as calories from grains and other traditional staples. In 100g of palm oil there are 880 calories while 100 g of whole wheat has 370 calories. Palm oil price has been between 2 and 4 times higher than wheat the last decades[ii].

In 1966, soy oil passed butter to become the world's leading edible oil or fat. In 1982 palm oil was in second place worldwide, sunflower seed oil in third, butter (fat content) in fourth, and rapeseed (canola) oil in fifth, all far behind soy oil[iii]. Of the total vegetable oil production of 161 million tons 2012/13 palm oil and palm kernel oil (both from the same oil palm) contributed almost 40 percent and soybeans 27 percent, meaning that two thirds of all vegetable oil comes form those two crops. As we can see from the table only rapeseed and sunflower oil play an important role in the global picture[iv]. Palm oil production is also without competition most area efficient, often reaching 5 tons oil per hectare. This is ten times more than the typical oil yield of rapeseed, sunflower and soybeans. 

Sunflower seed
Palm Kernel
USDA FAS, Major Vegetable Oils: World Supply and Distribution

In comparison total world production of butter was some 9 million tons[v], which is more than total coconut and olive production, but still rather marginal. Today, in average 1.3 kg butter and ghee per person is consumed in the world ranging from almost nothing in China to 2.7 kg in India[vi] and an average of 2.8 kg in developed countries. Developed countries also consume considerable quantities of cream, 2.2 kg per person[vii]. Almost 6 million tons of lard and 7 million tons of tallow are produced. Animal fats are also consumed as part of the meat itself, and much animal fat is consumed in other dairy products as well. But by and large animal fat plays a minor role for our food fat supply.

As a crop oil palm has many good properties, in particular that it is a perennial tree crop with high yields. Nevertheless, the rapid expansion has been accompanied by environmental and social damage. This include the loss of tropical rainforests due to land clearance and conversion to plantations (I have personally experienced how mainland Malaysia was covered by a haze caused by the burning), the destruction of wetland ecosystems following drainage, the pollution of waterways by eroded soil, the improper disposal of mill waste, and the contamination of rivers due to leaching of nutrients and pesticides when applied improperly. The expansion has reduced wildlife habitats and oil palm expansion is considered as a main threat to Orangutans as well as Sumatran Tiger. Not only are trees cut down to clear for oil palms, but a lot of the plantations are made on peat lands, which are mostly made up of organic matter. When drained the organic matter breaks down and emits very high quantities of CO2[viii]. This makes Indonesia the third largest green house gas emitter in the world – eighty percent of the emissions are from deforestation and land use changes[ix].

In France, Belgium, Austria, United States of America, Luxembourg, Italy, Switzerland and  Spain per person consumption of fat is more than 150g, while in Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi it is less than 30g[x]. Fat is a scarce resource globally, and the global trade represents almost forty percent of the production, a higher trade share than for any other major food commodity. China, the European Union and India are huge net importers of vegetable oils, and in Africa more than half of all oil used is imported, which is particularly disturbing considering that oil crops could do well in big parts of Africa and that the oil palm originates there. Soybean oil and palm oil provides most oils and they are both produced in large scale extractive systems. Fat is high energy and the highest yields of fat will come from tropical crops as they grow under energy abundant conditions, i.e. a lot of sun. In cold climates fat is a real problem. Butter from grass-fed cows and fat from pigs fed on a combination of waste and grain can produce as much fat per hectare as soybeans or rape seed[xi]. Which also was the reason for why in temperate climates those sources of fat has always been very important. If we consider that for the major oil crops there is a rest product which preferably is used as animal feeds, we see that the vegetable oil and animal fat production to some extent is mutually supportive.
(extracted from the book Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food, forthcoming)

[i] Globalization and Food Consumption, Jacinto F. Fabiosa in The Oxford Handboook of The Economics of Food Consumtion and Policy, 2011
[ii] Svenska kaloritabeller och Index Mundi
[iii] Shurtleff, William & Akiko Aoyagi 2007 History of Soybeans and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s, accessed 1 January 2014
[iv] USDA FAS 2014, Major Vegetable Oils: World Supply and Distribution, accessed 5 Jan 2014
[v] USDA FAS 2014, Butter Production and Consumption: Summary For Selected Countries, accessed 5 Jan 2014
[vi] Gerosa, Stefano and Jakob Skoet 2012, Milk availability, Trends in production and, demand and medium-term outlook, FAO, ESA Working paper No. 12-01
[vii] Gerosa, Stefano and Jakob Skoet 2012, Milk availability, Trends in production and, demand and medium-term outlook, FAO, ESA Working paper No. 12-01
[viii] Obidzinski, K., R. Andriani, H. Komarudin, and A. Andrianto. 2012. Environmental and social impacts of oil palm plantations and their implications for biofuel production in Indonesia. /Ecology and Society/ *17*(1): 25.
[ix] Norway-Indonesia REDD+ fact sheet
[x] FAO Statistical Division 2014, Country groups 1990-92 1995-97 2000-02 2005-07
[xi] Fairlie, Simon, Can Britain Feed Itslef?, the Land 4 Winter 2008-8

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