6 November 2015

Fire in South-East Asia: a highly visible consequence of our failing food system

Little more than three weeks before COP21, in a quasi-general indifference, fire outbreaks that devastate Borneo constitute a symbol of the absurdity and violence of our global food system.

These outbreaks that are linked to the millions of hectares of oil palm plantations, are a result of the logic that underlies the global food system. This logic is based on profit at all costs - whether health, environmental or social - provided it is possible to provide cheep products to consumers (when they eat or drive) without reducing significantly high margins. It is estimated that 1,7 million hectares burned in Indonesia since last July, rains being late because of this year’s particularly strong El Niño.

An incredible growth

It is because oil palm is by large the most productive oil crop (more than 4 tons of oil per hectare in Asia, maniforld the productivity of soybean, second source of vegetable oil in the world) that it has grown at an incredible rate since the mid-80’s, increasing from little less than 5 million hectares to more than 18 million hectares in 2013. This high productivity allows to produce oil at an unbeatably low price. Besides, palm oil has the advantage of being solid at ambient temperature and is easy to use by the food industry. Moreoever, oil palm grows in areas where there are (were) large stretches of ‘available’ land (where population density is relatively low and authorities rather obliging), mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. The palm oil boom first benefited from the development of the food industry in rich countries, then from the increasing demand in emerging countries, and finally from the demand arising from the so-called ‘green’ agrofuel that were supposed to feed our cars while producing less greenhouse gases (GHG).

Health costs

The problem is that palm oil, once reffined, loses all its nutritionnal qualities - in particular its high content in β-carotène, a precursor of vitamin A -, and is very rich in saturated fats which add to those coming from the consumption of animal fats and the excessive intake of which leads to cardiovascular diseases in rich countries. But because of its low price and the ease with which it can be used by the industry, palm oil and its saturated fats can be found in quantities in processed foods that are being consumed more and more throughout the world. This has, by now, become a well-known fact to many consumers and has started to be largely mentioned in the media.

However, the media say very little about the fact that palm oil and the fires it causes has deleterious health effects on millions of people in South-East Asia. There are an estimated 43 million people in the region who currently suffer from the pollution caused by these fire outbreaks and 500,000 persons have been treated for respiratory diseases since last July. In 1997, estimates are that 10,000 children died as a consequence of this type of fire outbreaks. Currently, the Indonesian government has to resort to its navy to evacuate the most exposed population groups.

Social costs

Eventhough 40% of palm oil is produced by family farms and despite it being presented by the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia as one of the vital sectors of their economy, it is the source of thousands of social conflicts, many of which are related to land grabbing or land encroachment of communal land by large private estates and to the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of farm labourers. Violation of customary laws, of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; appropriation by the State of community land to hand it over to private investors, multiple cases of abuse, violence, kidnapping, murder and use of police, army and illegal private militias have been quite common during the period of rapid expansion of oil palm and still today. For example, in Indonesia, 576 new oil palm-related conflicts were recorded in January 2009.

Environmental costs

In South-East Asia, a great part of the expansion of oil palm (around 25% according to some estimates) is taking place on peatland, the rest taking place on other types of equatorial forests. This peatland, which can, in some places, be as deep as 20 meters, is an extraordinary carbon sink. It is estimated that the 400 million hectares of peatland in the world retain 30% of the total carbon stored in the soil and twice as much carbon as what is stored in the biomass of the 4 billion hectares of forests. When peatland burns, it releases therefore a huge amount of carbon in the air. Worse even, fire in peatland emits ten times more methane (a gaz with a very powerful greenhouse effect) than when a ‘normal’ forest burns. As a consequence, the green house effect of burning one hectare of peatland is more than twenty times the effect of burning one hectare of forest! This has made that, between 1 September and 14 October of this year, Indonesia has produced daily more GHGs than the whole of the US, whose economy is twenty time bigger! In three weeks, Indonesia has produced as much GHGs than Germany in a whole year! Beyond the spectacular effect of fire outbreaks on peatland, the development of oil palm cultivation has also caused an invaluable loss of animal and plant biodiversity, as well as inflow of saline water from the sea because of drainage of peatland performed on large industrial plantations. The Indonesian government had imposed a two year moratorium in 2011, but research has demonstrated that this moratorium was not really respected as investors benefited from political patronage and found that 2012 was a record year for deforestation.

Solutions ?

It is clear from what has just been seen that the so-called ‘unbeatable price’ of palm oil is the result of a huge deception as all real costs of producing it are not reflected in its price. So what can be done to stop the health, social and environmental disaster that is a result of this fraud?

Several options can be considered:

  1. -on consumption

  2. better inform consumers on the health hazards caused by palm oil and on how they can better identify those processed foods that have it in their composition

  3. inform consumers on all the consequences (health, social and environmental) of the production of palm oil

  4. stop the absurd policy of support to the development of agrofuels by removing the billions of subsidies to their production that otherwise would not be profitable

  5. tax food products that have a high content in saturated fats (while subsidising those that do not, so as to compensate poor consumers). In the case of palm oil, one could also argue in favour of a tax that would integrate in its price the real health, social and environmental costs of producing it [read on the European experience with taxation of unhealthy food products]

  1. -on production

  2. impose an effective ban on the expansion of oil palm cultivation on primary forest and particularly on peatland (effective, because the law already exists in Indonesia, but it is not being effectively enforced by local authorities)

  3. ban totally and effectively slash-and-burn agriculture (a ban that is currently not being respected, even on RSPO-certified plantations - see below)

  4. to impose management rules on estates that limit as much as possible the risk of fire, in particular by imposing a lower level of drainage to maintain water in peatland above -20 cm

  5. encourage producers to change for alternative production as profitable as oil palm (pineapple, durian, etc.) that do not require total deforestation and can be achieved in an agroforestry context

  6. ensure respect of customary, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of local communities

  7. apply economic sanctions in case of non-respect of these rules.

The Round table of sustainable palm oil - RSPO, was established in the early years of this century. This initiative groups the main producers (United plantations, Agropalma, LodersCroklaan, Felda Global Venture), industrials (Unilever, Mondelez, Nestlé, AAK), traders and retailers (Tesco, Cargill, Carrefour, Archer-Daniels-Midland) and financiers (Rabobank, HSBC), as well as a few NGOs (Oxfam, WWF, Both Ends) with the view to promote principles and criteria for a sustainable production of palm oil. RSPO declares that 20% of world palm oil production, which comes from 2.6 million ha of oil palm plantations, meets the criteria issued by this private organisation that is an ISEAL member. These criteria, drafted in a very professional way, could appear convincing, although they seem to apply only to new plantations (what happens to pre-existing plantations?)

But one may sincerely doubt that they are really respected as RSPO and its members do not appear to be very transparent, although this principle is the first in the RSPO charter, and critiques are many of the role of this organisation in ‘greenwashing’ its members. Moreover, there are reports that show that some of the RSPO members continue to use fire and violate basic rights of the labourers they employ…

Palm oil…: this is an issue that should certainly be part of discussions during the forthcoming COP21.


To know more:

  1. -Harris, N. et al, Indonesia’s Fire Outbreaks Producing More Daily Emissions than Entire US Economy, World Resources Institute, October 2015

  2. -The Wall Street Journal, Indonesia’s Haze - the numbers, Octobrer 2015

  3. -RSPO, Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil, 2013

  4. -Varkkey, H., Patronage politics as a driver of economic regionalisation: The Indonesian oil palm sector and transboundary haze, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Vol. 53, No. 3, December 2012

  5. -Parish, F et al. RSPO Manual on best management practices (BMPs) for management and rehabilitation of natural vegetation associated with oil palm cultivation on peat, RSPO, 2012

  6. -Austin, K. et al., Indonesia’s moratorium on new forest concessions: key findins and next steps,  World Resources Institute, 2012

  7. -Pearce, F., Sustainable Palm Oil: Rainforest Savior or Fig Leaf?, environment 360, 2010

  8. -Sustainable Oil Platform

  9. -World Watch Institute, Indonesia’s Palm Oil Puzzle

  10. -Greenpeace UK, FAQ: Palm oil, forests and climate change, 2007

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -Price policies can help promote healthier diets: the example of Europe, 2015

  2. -A solution to combat climate change: an agriculture that stores carbon in the soil, 2015


Last update:    November 2015

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