How Palm Oil is Protecting the Amazon Rain Forest
The soybean industry is up to its old tricks, attempting to demonize the tropical oils. This time, the attacks are in the guise of environmentalism. However, if the truth were told, the soy industry would be exposed as one of the world’s worst offenders. Palm oil production, on the other hand, is protecting areas like the Amazon rain forest from destruction.
During the 1970s and 1980s the soybean industry was troubled by emerging evidence that soybean oil consumption lowered immunity, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and promoted cancer.
At this same time saturated fats were being scrutinized because of their tendency, in general, to raise blood cholesterol levels. The bigwigs in the soybean industry got the bright idea that if they could demonize the competition, by making saturated fats appear to be the cause of heart disease—the nation’s number one killer—people wouldn’t pay much attention to the negative findings coming out about soybean oil. Starting in the mid-1980s the soybean oil industry began a multi-million dollar anti-saturated fat campaign. Saturated fats increased cholesterol, they said, and high cholesterol causes heart disease. The tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) were singled out as being the worst offenders because of their high saturated fat content.
Some, but not all, saturated fats do raise total cholesterol, but there was no solid evidence that high cholesterol actually caused heart disease. That is why high cholesterol is only considered a “risk factor” rather than a cause. But that didn’t stop the soy industry. Gullible consumer advocate groups like The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and The American Heart Savors Association were swayed by the misleading information and began their own campaigns against saturated fats. In these groups the soybean industry found very vocal, high profile allies which spearheaded much of the criticism against saturated fats, and particularly against the tropical oils. These organizations placed anti-saturated fat ads in the media, published newsletters and magazine articles, and books, and lobbied for political action against the use of tropical oils and other saturated fats.
The soybean industry fed misleading information to these groups and allowed them to fight the battle. The soybean industry took a back seat and stayed out of the limelight. This was very clever from a marketing perspective because now the soybean industry wasn’t viewed as openly attacking their competition. Since the bulk of the attack came from supposedly impartial third parties, their message had more impact. People were swayed against saturated fats and the tropical oils.
Restaurants and food manufactures sensitive to customer fear of saturated fats, began removing these fats from their foods and replacing them with vegetable oils. Tropical oil consumption plummeted while soybean oil sales skyrocketed. In the United States soybean oil soon accounted for about 80 percent of all the vegetable oil consumed.
During this time, one thing the soybean industry conveniently neglected to tell the public was that the saturated fats were not being replaced with ordinary vegetable oil, but by hydrogenated soybean oil! Hydrogenated soybean oil contains toxic trans fatty acids and is far more damaging to the heart than any other fat. It has also been linked to numerous other health problems including diabetes, cancer, and various autoimmune diseases. In terms of health, it is absolutely the worse fat that could be used.
The soy industry was aware of many of the detrimental effects associated with hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans fatty acids, that is why it was never publicly announced that saturated fat would eventually be replaced by hydrogenated vegetable oils. They succeeded in demonizing all saturated fats, including healthy coconut and palm oils, for the sake of profit. The plan was an overwhelming financial success. Over the next two decades hydrogenated vegetable oils found their way into over 40 percent of all the foods on supermarket shelves, amounting to about 40,000 different products. Hydrogenated soybean oil consumption dramatically increased, so did numerous diseases now found to be associated trans fatty acids.
In recent years, however, coconut and palm oils have been making a comeback. Careful review of previous research and more current medical studies have exonerated the tropical oils from the claim that they promote heart disease. In fact, if anything, they appear to help protect against heart disease as well as many of the other diseases now known to be linked to hydrogenated vegetable oils.
With the growing awareness of the dangers of trans fatty acids in hydrogenated vegetable oils and the landmark announcement in 2002 from the United States Institute of Medicine stating that “no level of trans fatty acids is safe in the diet,” tropical oils are returning. Coconut and palm oils are naturally trans fat free. Palm oil in particular has enjoyed a resurgence internationally as a preferred cooking oil. Its excellent stability and high smoke point (437 degrees F) make it ideal for cooking and frying. In terms of health, it is far superior to hydrogenated soybean oil.
Many restaurants and food manufactures are now replacing their hydrogenated soybean oil with palm oil. Consequently, hydrogenated soybean oil sales are declining. The soybean oil industry is alarmed. In an effort to protect their profits they’ve returned to their old tried and true means of demonizing the competition in order to make their products more acceptable.
Relying on old friends, such as CSIP, a new wave of attacks have been focused on palm oil. CSPI reverting back to its old standard of trying to create fear in the minds of the public, continues to harp on the saturated fat issue. They have even published full page ads in the New York Times suggesting that palm oil is worse than hydrogenated soybean oil. The impact the CSPI has had with this approach has generally been flat. Too many people now are aware of the benefits of the tropical oils and the dangers of hydrogenated vegetable oils. Their anti-saturated fat rhetoric isn’t having the same impact as it did in previous years. There is just too much scientific evidence to refute their unfounded claims.
Desperate to find an alternative means of attack, the soybean industry has found a new ally in the Friends of the Earth, a highly vocal politically active environmental group. Fueled by support and misleading data from the soy industry, the Friends of the Earth have now waged a war against palm oil on the grounds that palm cultivation is destroying the environment. They claim that rain forests are being leveled to make room for palm plantations, destroying the ecology and bringing endangered species, such as the orangutan, to the brink of extinction. Anyone with any sense of responsibility for the environment would be emotionally swayed by this argument.
The problem, however, is that it’s not true. Like a magician, the soybean industry is a master of illusion. They were successful in creating the illusion that tropical oils caused heart disease and that hydrogenated soybean oils were a better option. Now that we have discovered the secret to that illusion, they are trying to trick us again. This time they are attempting to create an illusion that their competition is harming the environment while they, on the other hand, are environmentally friendly. In reality, the soybean industry is causing more destruction to the environment than probably any other agricultural industry on the planet.
In the time it takes to read this entire article, an area of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed, much of it for soybean cultivation.
Brazil holds about 30 percent of the Earth’s remaining tropical rain forest. The Amazon Basin produces roughly 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, creates much of its own rainfall, and harbors many unknown species. The Brazilian rain forest is the world’s most biologically diverse habitat. Close to 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has already been cut down.
Now, industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers, speeding up destruction and further fragmenting the great Brazilian wilderness. Between the years 2000 and 2005, Brazil lost more than 50,000 square miles of rain forest. A large portion of that was for soybean farming.
Soybean production in the Brazilian Amazon soared after heat-tolerant varieties were introduced in 1997. In just ten years, exports of soybeans grown in the Amazon Basin have reached 42 million tons a year. Total annual soybean production in Brazil is about 85 million tons. Brazil will soon surpass the United States as the world’s leader in soybean production.
At the current rate of clearing, scientists predict that 40 percent of the Amazon will be destroyed and a further 20 percent degraded within two decades. If that happens, the forest’s ecology will begin to unravel. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die. Currently trees are being wantonly burned to create open land for soybean cultivation. Consequently, Brazil has become one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
There are few paved roads into the Amazon. The most controversial is the 1,100 mile long BR-163 highway which runs straight into the heart of the Amazon Basin providing an alleyway for industrial-sized soybean operations to grab up millions of acres of land. Because of the thousands of tons of soy transported over this road it is nicknamed the “soy highway.”
The decimation of the Amazon is, for the most part, done legally. Even the governor of the state of Mato Gross, on the edge of the Amazon Basin is a part of it. Governor Blairo Maggi is the world’s largest single soybean producer, growing 350,000 acres. That’s equivalent to 547 square miles of Amazon rain forest that has been leveled for soybean production. He is just one of many industrial-sized soybean operations in the area. In 2005 Greenpeace awarded Maggi the Golden Chain Saw award for his role in leveling the rain forest.
Clearing the land for soybean production is only part of the problem. Soybean cultivation destroys habitat for wildlife including endangered or unknown species. It increases greenhouse gases, which are believed to contribute to global warming and disrupts the life of indigenous tribes who depend on the forest for food and shelter. Soybeans need large amounts of acid-neutralizing lime, as well as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. All of which are creating an environmental hazard. Toxic chemicals contaminate the forest, poison rivers, and destroy wildlife. Indigenous Indian communities complain about poisoned water and dying fish.
The environmental destruction caused by soybean farming isn’t limited to the Amazon, it occurs throughout the world wherever soybeans are produced. That’s hundreds of thousands of acres of deforestation, over cultivation and destruction of the land, and billions of tons of toxic chemicals spewed into the environment year after year, contaminating our soils, water, and destroying wildlife, not to mention what it is doing to us. New genetically modified soy was specifically developed to withstand the toxins so farmers could spray even more pesticides on them without diminishing yields. Talk about destroying the environment, the soybean industry has to rank near the top of the offender’s list.
Now, let’s take a look at the palm oil industry. When you compare soy cultivation to that of palm, there is a huge difference. Palm cultivation is perhaps, the world’s most environmentally friendly commercial crop. After oil palms reach maturity they are commercially productive for at least a quarter of a century. That means that once the trees are planted, the soil remains essentially undisturbed for decades. Unlike soy, were the ground is dug up and re-cultivated every year, year after year. The soil in a palm plantation remains essentially undisturbed. Native grasses and scrubs are allowed to repopulate the space between trees. The natural habitat returns, complete with wildlife. An oil palm plantation takes on the appearance of a rain forest, filled with vegetation.
Wild boar, monkeys, birds, and other wildlife are allowed to roam in and out of the plantations, just as they do in the wild. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are rarely, if ever, used. Since the ground is continually covered with trees and growth, the soil is not eroded, maintaining the integrity of the environment from the tiniest soil organisms to the largest land animals. So a palm plantation blends into the environment without causing untold disruption.
Compare that with a soybean plantation where all trees and other vegetation are killed and removed. Only soybeans are allowed to grow. And what about wildlife? Animals would trample or eat the crops, so they are fenced out, shot, or poisoned.
Unlike soy and most other crops that produce once a year, oil palms produce fruit year round, so they are always in season. This allows for a high yield of fruit on comparatively little acreage. For this reason, the oil palm produces more oil per acre than any other vegetable source. For example, in one year on one acre of land a farmer can produce 18 gallons of corn oil, or 35 gallons of cottonseed oil, or 48 gallons of soybean oil. However, on the same amount of land you can produce 635 gallons of palm oil! No, that is not a misprint. You read that correctly, 635 gallons of palm oil compared to just 48 gallons of soybean oil.In terms of land use, you would need to plant 13 acres of soy or 35 acres of corn to produce an equal amount of oil from just one acre of palm.
So, soybean cultivation requires 13 times more land to produce the same amount of oil. And this land is stripped of all other vegetation, and continually plowed and re-plowed, and poisoned
with pesticides. While oil palms are planted once and then the land is allowed to return mostly to its natural state without harming the environment.
More soybean oil is produced annually worldwide than any other oil. What that means is that millions of acres of land has and is being destroyed under soybean cultivation. More land, like that in the Amazon Basin, is being leveled and forests and wildlife habitat being destroyed to meet the increasing demand for soybean oil.
Replacing soybean oil with palm oil, is not only a healthier option, but would save countless acres of land from untold environmental damage. In the Amazon we have no idea how many rare species of plants and animals are becoming extinct in the name of corporate profit.
The Brazilian government acknowledged the lost 5,420 square miles of rain forest during 2006. This is an area more than twice the size as the entire state of Delaware! The good news is that the Brazilian Environment Ministry reported that the rate of Amazon destruction dropped 20 percent in 2007. Why the slowdown? You can thank the palm oil producers. Competition with palm oil has lowered the demand for soybean oil causing the soybean market to decline. With less of a demand for soybean oil, there is less incentive to clear the Amazon rain forest. The rising demand for palm oil (much of it as a replacement for hydrogenated soybean oil) has made a significant impact in slowing down the careless, yet legal, destruction of the Amazon.
Last year competition from palm oil saved 1,087 square miles of Amazon rain forest from being leveled for soybean cultivation. Some people might look at this and say, but places like Malaysia (the world’s biggest palm oil producer) also convert rain forest into farmland. However, in the past four years more Amazon rain forest in Brazil has been destroyed to make room for soybean cultivation than Malaysia has cleared in the past 100 years for palm oil production. Do the math. When you compare palm oil to soybean, and in fact to any other oil crop, palm oil is by far the most environmentally friendly. There is no comparison. Hopefully, as demand for palm oil increases, the demand for soybean oil will decrease, saving even more of the Amazon rain forest, and the earth as a whole, from needless destruction.
Despite the massive destruction caused by the soybean industry, you never hear people crying out against the use of soybean oil. You don’t see the CSIP or the Friends of the Earth attacking the soybean industry for destroying the environment. Why is that? Why are the environmental and consumer advocate groups mysteriously quiet about soy, yet violently active against the palm oil industry? The answer is power, money, and influence. The soybean industry is very rich and powerful. They know how to manipulate the media and these special interest groups and use them as unknowing puppets. They feed them lies, half-truths, and misconceptions in order to con them and the public.
World Production of Oils & Fats 2005 Butter 5% Coconut Oil 2% Corn Oil 2% Palm Oil & Palm Kernel Oil 27% Rapeseed Oil 11% Soybean Oil 24% Sunflower Oil 7% Lard and Tallow 11% Others 11%
Watch this video of a film crew caught in the act of fabricating anti-palm propaganda concerning the orangutans by coercing children to lie in front of the camera. click here for video. Despite the money the producers must have paid the parents, this child refused to tell a lie.
World Production of Oils & Fats 2005
- Butter 5%
- Coconut Oil 2%
- Corn Oil 2%
- Palm Oil & Palm Kernel Oil 27%
- Rapeseed Oil 11%
- Soybean Oil 24%
- Sunflower Oil 7%
- Lard and Tallow 11%
- Others 11%
In the following months and years you will no doubt hear many graphic reports depicting how palm oil cultivation is destroying the earth, contributing to greenhouse gases, and driving animals into extinction. The truth is that palm oil cultivation has only a minor impact on the environment. Most of the cultivation is done in a very environmentally friendly manner. So don’t be fooled. The real danger is coming from the soybean industry. It took us over two decades to realize the harm the soybean industry caused to our health with the replacement of tropical oils with hydrogenated soybean oil. Let’s not make another mistake with the environment.
Severson, K. Clues on labels reveal hidden trans fats. The San Francisco Chronicle July 31, 2002.
Wallace, S. Last of the Amazon. National Geographic 2007;211:40-71.
Lehman, S. Brazil says Amazon deforestation is down. USA Today December, 7, 2007. ■