- Ed Cejar
OIL PALM. Boon or Bane?
An oil palm plantation, bereft of other flora (aside from the scraggly grass) and fauna.
Palm oil had a nasty reputation back in the 1980s, when Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law regime grandfathered a partnership between the National Development Corporation (NDC) and Malaysia’s Guthrie to establish plantations across Trento and San Francisco, Agusan del Sur. Those sprawling farms took in the infamous Lost Command, a murderous band of misfits and trigger-happy commandos, as security forces, which consequently made not a few Mindanaowons change the way they thought about palm oil.
But over the next decades, there had been a renewed interest in the crop. In an article he wrote in 2013, irrigation administrator-designate Peter Laviña reported that South Koreans were looking at possibilities of investing in Mindanao. He said that Malaysians were, again, in talks with local investors, and that even the “Metro Pacific Group of Manuel Pangilinan and its parent Indonesian company’s Indofood (were) undertaking soil tests in Davao Oriental.” Laviña, who would eventually helm a palm oil company, also revealed that “Thailand’s Univanich (was) partnering with the Taliño family for a $10 million oil mill in Carmen, North Cotabato.”
The buzz appears to be real. But for all the avowed claims, what is the flip side of the palm oil story? Resurgent contributor Ed Cejar offers a differing view of one of today’s controversial crops. —ed.
Then environment secretary Ramon Paje of the Aquino administration strongly pushed for palm oil cultivation, targeting eight million hectares of plantations in a bid to become a major palm oil supplier to the world. He said that farmers should consider oil palm as “an alternative to one of the Philippines’s major crops, the coconut, since there are more financial returns in cultivating oil palm in one hectare of land compared to farming coco trees.”
The current Secretary of Agriculture, Manny Piñol, is a long-time advocate of oil palm cultivation. In fact, oil palm is included in his list of priority high value crops. Coconut is in his “also” list.
Oil palm is a competition to coconut, despite what the oil palm industry and its advocates in government are saying.
The Philippine Coconut Authority, the agency responsible for attending to the needs of the coconut industry, uses an oxymoronic term—complementary. In fact, word has it that there is a plan—if it hasn’t happened already—to change the name to Philippine Palm Authority, to cover its advocacy of oil palm.
So we compare both crops as to: uses, income of farmers, environment, and health.
1. Products and Uses
In food, palm oil is used in shortening, margarines, vegetable ghee, frying fats, cooking oil, specialty fats, ice cream, cookies, crackers, cake mixes, icing, instant noodles, non-dairy creamer, biscuits and dough fat.
In non-food and beauty products, it is used for cosmetics, household cleaners, soaps, candles, lotions, body oils, shampoos and skin care products. The natural fats present in palm oil make it an ideal emulsifier for moisturizers and other personal care products.
Food derived from coconut includes coconut butter/manna, desiccated coconut, coconut sugar, fresh coconut and young coconut, coconut water, coconut milk and cream, coconut yogurt, coconut kefir, coconut flour, coconut nectar, coconut vinegar, coconut cooking oil, coconut wine, coconut syrup.
For beauty products, coconut oil is used in lipstick, charcoal face mask, body lotion, amino acid shampoo, foot cream, body polish.
In the automotive industry, coco coir is a replacement for petroleum-based parts like door panels, dashboards, and seat cushions.
Coco coir is also used in soil erosion control in the form of erosion mats, logs and wattles.
Activated carbon from coconut shell has industrial, agricultural and medical uses.
In the home front, lumber, handicraft, roofing materials, brooms, and a host of other products are made from coconut.
2. Income of Farmers
Under a mono-cropping system, comparing income from copra-based coconut production versus oil palm, the latter wins hands down. This comparison, however, ignores the fact that unlike the mono-crop oil palm, coconut is suitable for intercropping and is a multi-product crop.
According to a study by the Philippine Palm Development Council, a hectare of oil palm will earn the farmer P116,000.00 per annum compared to P40,000.00 per annum for coconut.
But in a study conducted by Severino Magat of the PCA, a hectare of coconut intercropped with banana, pineapple and raising cattle or goat under the coconut trees will earn the farmer P239,000.00. Based on actual experience of coconut producer Jun Castillo of Coco House, producing coconut nectar from a hectare of coconut will gross the farmer P2,700,000.00 and even at a low margin of 10%, will give him P270,000.00 per year. Coco sugar producer couple Jerry and Jocelyn Taray makes a net of P252,000.00 per hectare per year.
These numbers should speak for themselves.
Net Profit / Hectare/Year
Experts during the Responsible Business Forum on Food and Agriculture said “monoculture, or the planting of one crop across a plot of land, is a common agricultural practice that negatively impacts the ecological balance of the soil and greater area, as well as affecting the traditional way of planting of rural communities.’’
Oil palm is monoculture. It does not only negatively impact on the soil, it has a greater negative impact on biodiversity. It will destroy the habitat of endemic birds and animals. It will kill off endemic plants. On the other hand, in integrated coconut farm, both endemic flora and fauna, finds a friendly home.
Use of pesticide and inorganic fertilizers, albeit less than other mono-crops like banana or sugar cane, still contributes to the degradation and contamination of the soil and water. Coconut use mostly salt for fertilizers. Control of pests is predominantly biological.
For every metric ton of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric tons of effluent are generated from processing the palm oil in mills. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which can affect downstream biodiversity and people.
In this country, we don’t have issues on massive deforestation to accommodate oil palm plantations. Our problem is the conversion of prime corn and rice land to oil palm plantations (contrary to DA and PCA claims that only marginal lands are planted with oil palm).
There is no definitive independent study on the health impact of palm oil or coconut oil. Research studies by supporters or detractors of either product are tainted with bias. Supporters tout benefits while detractors magnify disadvantages.
Supporters of coconut oil allege that “dietary intake of coconut oil include thyroid stimulating effects; anti-aging properties; decreased levels of LDL cholesterol; antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties that prevent illness; anti-cancer effects; and weight loss as the result of thyroid stimulation.”
On the other hand “the primary drawback to coconut oil is its saturated fat content, with 11.8 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon,…causes of high cholesterol. Another disadvantage to coconut oil consumption is its high caloric density: one gram of fat has nine calories while one gram of protein or carbohydrates has four calories. If you are consuming coconut oil, then you are eating more than twice the calories you could get from equal amounts of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and lean meats.”
Palm oil supporters say that “it provides a source of dietary energy, easily digested, an essential fatty acid, cholesterol-free and It is rich in carotenoids, which are a precursor of Vitamin A. It’s also rich in Vitamin E, a natural antioxidant that can protect against free radicals. “
But its detractors counter that “(a) its saturated fat content is too high to be part of a healthy diet. Too much saturated fat can lead to heart problems. It can raise cholesterol, (b) it may reduce the ability of the blood to clot. So for those who are already on blood thinners or are concerned about excessive bleeding, palm oil should be avoided.”
So the jury is still out on the impact of either product on health.
All things being equal, all data point to coconut as the better crop in all aspects. Both the DA and PCA should focus their efforts to rehabilitating and growing the coconut industry. They should strongly support and push the development of integrated and organic farming among the coconut farmers.
Let us stop this penchant for anything foreign and “gaya-gaya” mentality.
Cacao intercrop under the coconut effectively doubles, even triples, the coconut farmer income.