Published: 13th August 2021
What the FAQ: What is the Palm Oil Mission and what does it mean for India's ecosystem?
Sustainable agriculture is the crux of the matter in palm oil production. Is the Indian government really equipped to regulate it?
Palm oil has always been on the fringes of the sustainability conversation. We can’t do without it, but we are definitely not doing it right. With India pushing to ramp up its palm oil production, here’s a breakdown of what that could entail.
What does the palm oil mission mean?
India is currently the largest importer of edible oils in the world. Edible oils include any oil extract that can be consumed. This range from coconut oil, canola oil, olive oil, groundnut oil, to, yes, palm oil. The government has been trying to reduce the imports of edible oils over the last few years now as part of its aatmanirbhar mission. In 2018 it increased the import duty on palm oil, which almost doubled the earnings of the Indian producers. Governments in the past have also been trying to encourage the production of palm oil in India since 1990. On August 9, the Modi government announced the National Mission on Edible Oil-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), which would pump Rs 11,000 crore into ensuring farmers get high-quality seeds and all other resources and tech to boost palm oil production in the country. Around 75,000 hectares of land is to be brought under palm cultivation, with a focus on northeast states.
Why was it necessary? What are the major applications of palm oil?
Well, palm oil demand boomed when the beauty and self-care products expanded exponentially. The oil is extracted from the flesh of the oil palm fruit and then processed. Almost all beauty products, including soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, detergent, creams et al, use palm oil and its extracts as foaming or sheen agents. Processed foods also make ample use of palm oil and its extracts. Palm oil extracts are also used to make biodiesel which is widely used by the European Union.
How has excessive palm oil production affected ecosystems in other countries?
India imports most of its palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia. These two countries are the largest producers of palm oil contributing to a whooping 84 per cent of the palm oil production in the world. The Indonesian government has been in overdrive to increase the production and export of palm oil in the country, and double its current production of 34.5 million tonnes. Malaysia, on the other hand, is the second-largest producer, but the largest exporter of palm oil and they have pledged to limit the production. For many years now, experts have been warning about the collateral damage that palm oil plantations have caused to the ecosystems of these countries. Depleting groundwater levels, increased deforestation, and the subsequent loss of habitat for native creatures such as tigers and orangutans have all been part of the damage that this product has caused to the land. Consider this: the Indonesian government’s reports suggest that between 1990-2015, forest area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, was destroyed to produce palm oil and paper. Greenpeace reports that the Bornean Orangutan population has been reduced by half in 16 years.
Can palm oil production be sustainable?
Despite the environmental concerns, palm oil is actually the most sustainable edible oil available to us. It is produced in about 5 per cent of the land on which oil is produced, but makes up 38 per cent of the supply. The organic waste that is created during the processing is used to create biodiesel. So, replacing it clearly isn’t an option. However, despite the uses, the unsustainable methods of production in the countries that produce it the most have given palm oil such a bad rep. The slash and burn technique of farming, which burns forests to convert into agricultural land, is deployed to produce palm oil. Some major brands around the world use palm oil, and while they have pledged to “clean it up”, precious little has been done so far. In 2014 after severe concerns raised by environmental groups, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up. What it was supposed to do was certify “sustainably produced palm oil,” and while it does hand out certificates, there have been numerous claims that it still doesn’t regulate the production of palm oil to actually make it sustainable.
What does it mean for the Indian ecosystems in the context of the IPCC's climate report?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report rang warning bells loud and clear for what is now a planet in dire straits of global warming. Burning forests and depleting the already scarce groundwater table to produce palm oil, and destroying habitats isn’t going to help. Palm oil also has a long gestation period. India is an economy dependent on agriculture. And agriculture is dependent on water, which is dependent on the weather in most areas because of the lack of irrigation infrastructure. India’s agricultural scene has problems aplenty on its own. Farmers might opt to produce palm oil because of governmental support and subsidies, but in the long run, as with countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, this could create more troubles for the ecosystem, than it solves for the economy.