Despite the conservation narratives focused on specific themes; tropical deforestation and misleading anti-palm oil campaigns, palm oil will continue to be the powerhouse of the oils and fats market.
Statistically, palm oil was the largest produced vegetable oil in 2020 at about 31% of 235.4 million tonnes of world oils and fats production as compared to 25% of soybean oil and 11% of rapeseed oil in the same year.
From frying oils to shortenings in baking, palm oil is used in various products as it is the only vegetable oil that naturally semi-solid at room temperature with a balanced content of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids (about 1:1). Palm kernel oil which has a sharp melting profile can be physically fractionated into palm kernel stearin which is widely used as confectionery fats.
Because of its versatility and functionality, numerous research and efforts with investments of millions of capitals to imitate palm oil were carried out.
But none of the existing alternatives to palm oil is currently economically or environmentally viable at scale.
Three other vegetable oils; soybean, rapeseed and sunflowers are significantly higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids than palm oil and therefore stay in the liquid state at room temperature, which limits their functionality in foods. They require modification to make them more solid and oxidative stable when replacing palm oil in food products.
The modification procedure known as hydrogenation could generate trans fatty acids that have been demonstrated to be harmful to human health.
Hydrogenation of unsaturated vegetable oils could be useful for non-food application namely surfactants and cosmetics, where the different fatty acid profile is important to emulate the consistency and behaviour of palm oil used in those products.
Even so, this is costly as other crops are more expensive and less productive than oil palm.
Researchers are analysing various methods to produce oil of similar qualities to palm oil. In some laboratories, several microorganisms are found to accumulate within the cells, a high level of oil analogous to those of terrestrial plants; palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic acids. Some cells can accumulate up to 70-80 percent of total cell mass. Some laboratories engineered yeast to produce oil intracellularly from fermentation.
The challenges such as contamination from other species, organism robustness and the high downstream processing cost can crucially outweigh the benefit. Most importantly, upscaling the production capacity could incur the same environmental and social impacts associated with palm production or even worse.
Currently, scientists are focusing on rearranging molecules of fats on glycerol’s backbone using enzymes to obtain fats with similar functionality as palm oil, with hope to replace palm oil in food products.
In different labs, researchers reported that structural fats, fats that have been modified from their natural biosynthetic state by chemical and/or enzymatic methods, showed poor oxidative stability in food model system or real food products.
Although oxidative stability is affected by diverse parameters, the study emphasised that it was mainly related to the loss of endogenous antioxidant, components that are naturally present in palm oil such as tocotrienols, tocopherols and carotenoids.
Furthermore, it is difficult to assess the metabolic impact of a single fatty acid and its possible long-term consequences on the lipid profile, the biochemistry and human metabolism towards these compounds.
There are also efforts to enhance versions of sunflower or rapeseed oil to produce a high proportion of oleic and stearic acid through genetic modification (GM). These mutants improve oxidative stability for frying and are commonly found on the shelf as high-oleic sunflower and high-oleic rapeseed oil.
The use of the genetic tool for altering plant genetic material is a hugely debated topic in the public and scientific community. There is also a considerable consumer resistance to GM crops for food use in many countries, particularly in Europe. Palm oil, on the other hand, is GM-free.
Agriculture has changed our world more than any activities. Globally, palm oil covered 23.4 million ha of cultivation land, five times smaller than soybean cultivation area but produces on average 3.24 tonnes per ha annually. That equals to 7 times more than soybean oil and 4 times more than rapeseed and sunflower oils.
Latest figures showed that about 55.6% of Malaysia’s 33 million hectares land areas are under forest cover, exceeding the country’s initial pledge of 50% forest cover at the Rio Earth Summit 1992.
Serious commitment and work towards achieving this include the development of ecosystem monitoring system, replanting of trees, rehabilitation, ecosystem-based projects, nature-based solutions, ecosystem services, sustainable management of natural areas and resources, improvement of yield and productivity of commodity without expansion of land.
Mandatory certification of Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) (on 1st January 2020), ensures responsible and sustainable production, as well as transparency and traceability along the palm oil supply chain. The MSPO certification also covers the protection of biodiversity and the environment. As of December 31st, 2020, 88.25% of the total oil palm planted areas in the country have been certified.
The Malaysian Government has also established “Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation” to support conservation efforts to enhance the image of palm oil as a sustainable product.
In Sabah, the One Million Trees Planting Project, mainly funded by the Malaysian palm oil industry players was launched. Its objective is to contribute to the enhancement of carbon stocks and simultaneously create new carbon sinks within the forest or oil palm landscape, apart from providing the livelihood to forest dependent communities.
Malaysia participated in the Virtual dialogue ‘Forests and agricultural commodities: a partnership for sustainable land use, climate and commodity trade’. The establishment of a potential long-term partnership between palm oil producing countries and the EU for this purpose is expected to be achieved.