Frying the rainforests – the palm oil connection

By Feini Tuang

When we have our French fries and potato chips, we hardly think about their connection to the rainforests. How are they connected?  This is where palm oil comes into the picture.

Palm oil is the most widely used cooking oil for frying. As much as 4.5 million tonnes of palm oil is used annually in fast food restaurants and snack food factories, churning out French fries, potato crisps, instant noodles and other starch-based snacks. The palm oil used for frying alone amounts to ten percent of the annual global palm oil production. In terms of land use, it represents one million hectares of palm oil plantation out of a total of 12 million hectares globally.

Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world. Palm oil cultivation has been expanding at a rate of 340,000 hectares, three times the size of Hong Kong, per year from 2000-2009 mostly at the expense of tropical lowland forests including peatlands. The clearing of rainforests has a global impact. With it come species extinction, the loss of important ecosystem services and renewable resources, and the reduction of carbon sinks.

In addition, the conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantation is contributing to climate change. About 1.4 million hectares of existing Indonesian oil palm concessions are located on peatlands. Peatlands formed over thousands of years from decomposed trees, grass and scrub under peat swamp forests and are one of the world’s largest near surface reserves of terrestrial organic carbon.  When each hectare of peatland is drained for oil palm production, an estimated 3,750-5,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide is released over 25 years. The release of carbon dioxide is also speeded up when fire is used to clear the land. Deforestation and peatlands degradation has made Indonesia the third largest green-house gas emitter in the world after China and the United States.

The rainforests is also home to indigenous people who rely on the forests for their livelihoods.They have developed unique cultures and traditions over thousands of years living as part of the land. Much of this is being sheared and altered as the global demand for palm oil grows insatiably. Concerning our personal health, deep frying poses health risks such as coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, diabetes and hypertension. This demonstrates how we are all connected on Earth.

As we can see in these examples, the consumption of French fries and snacks can lead to the destruction of rainforests, contribute to climate change, displace indigenous people and pose health risks.

Collectively as a global community who consume French fries and snacks, our impact is very real, destructive and growing alarming. We do have a choice over the food we eat, our lifestyle, and the kind of industries we support. We can save the rainforests, peatlands, indigenous communities and our health from frying by facing up to the facts and finding alternatives to the food we consume. Are French fries, potato chips, instant noodles and other fried snacks necessary?  And if so, how much is enough? What else can we use besides palm oil, taking into account the negative impacts of using other oils? Is meeting our demand for frying more important than the rainforests and the integrity of our ecosystems as a whole?

This is only the tip of an iceberg with regard to how our food and lifestyles choices are connected to and impacting the ecosystem and our well-being. We can turn the negative impacts into positive ones when we are aware of where we are heading and take decisive action to follow a more the sustainable path.

Feini Tuang is Senior Consultant at the Global Institute For Tomorrow.