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Vegetable Oils Perspective – A Gorilla in the China Closet

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Touch the Soil News #555

For most of us, when it comes to access to food and the products we need, our focus is on getting dollars first. In our battle to translate labor into dollars, we often cannot imagine that something is more important than our finances – or corporate structures designed solely to maximize finances.

The unfolding story of saving the rainforests – which are ecologically important to planetary health – always ends up in the same debate. Farmland lost to urbanization is made up by slashing and burning rainforests or encroaching on other environmentally and biologically sensitive regions.

How could such a small thing like vegetable oils be responsible for dismembering our planetary ecology? The simple answer is that there are 7.5 billion folks at the dinner table. After that it gets more complicated as our approach to economics is, to a large extent, insensitive to the natural world.

Deforestation in Sumatra (Indonesia) in preparation for a palm oil plantation. Development of palm oil also has a social justice aspect as it often entails removing indigenous people from their land and livelihoods.

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We’ve been alert to the vegetable oil dilemma for some time. However, recently we were able to assemble some of the numbers behind the vegetable oil drama:

  1. Global vegetable oil consumption for this year is projected to be 406 billion pounds – a global average of 54 pounds per person
  2. It takes roughly 332 million acres of farmland with water to produce vegetable oils the world will consume this year. That is equivalent to a farm 20 miles wide and 26,000 miles long (more that the distance around the equator).
  3. To meet the ever growing demand for vegetable oils, the world needs an additional 16.4 million acres of farmland each year. That is equivalent to a farm 20 miles wide and almost 1,300 miles long.

At the heart of the vegetable oil dilemma is palm oil – the source of 35 percent of the world’s vegetable oils. Palm oil thrives in rainforest climates and materially produces more oil per acre than any other vegetable oil. Second are soybeans which provide about 29 percent of the world’s vegetable oils. Soybeans are also one of the primary crops that replace rainforests.

Unfortunately, the solution to ever growing demand for vegetable oils is complex and generally out of the thoughts of folks tethered to a system that demands focus on dollars. We hope these statistics have at least provided a perspective that might not have been achieved in any other way.

Following is a short video clip on palm oil development

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