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What if we stop using Palm Oil?

Palm oil plantations are blamed for chewing up the rainforest and taking away palm-oil150the habitat of the orangutan. Palm oil is criticized as an unhealthy oil, full of saturated fat. Palm oil production is allegedly bad for the environment and society. One European nations is doing something about the palm oil problem: Norway Cuts Palm Oil Consumption 64% to Protect Rainforest. OK, fine. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the whole world cuts its palm oil use by 64%. What would happen?

Here’s the hunger math to that equation:

In 2009, the oil palm tree provided the world with 45,083,932 metric tonnes of palm fruit oil and 5,733,908 metric tonnes of palm kernel oil, for a total of 50,817,840 MT of dietary fat (that’s over 50 billion kilograms of dietary fat). The calories in palm fruit oil is 8840 kcal/kg of oil. The calories in palm kernel oil is 8620 kcal/kg of oil.

45,083,932 MT of palm fruit oil, times 1,000 to convert to kilograms, times 8840 kcal per kg of oil, gives us 398,541,958,880,000 kcal from palm fruit oil.

5,733,908 MT of palm kernel oil, times 1,000 to convert to kilograms, times 8620 kcal per kg of oil, gives us 49,426,286,960,000 kcal from palm kernel oil.

Total kcal: 447,968,245,840,000 per year from the oil palm tree, all in the form of dietary fat. That value is about 4.48e+14 in scientific notation, or 448 trillion calories from fat for the world.

The entire world agricultural system produces 2.06E+08 MT of dietary fat per year [see Comparison of World Staple Crops]. So our 50,817,840 MT of palm oil is about 26.7% of the world supply of dietary fat. That’s why palm fruit oil is ranked 6th in terms of the calories that it provides to the world (below maize, wheat, rice, soy, and barley).

As we’ve discussed before on this blog (and as explained in my book), we can estimate that about 30% of the calories in a normal diet are or should be from dietary fat. If you are sedentary and/or older, you probably burn only about 1800 to 2200 kcal/day (an average of 2000 kcal/day). But let’s suppose a generous estimate of calories at 2740 per day, which is about one million calories a year per person. Our 30% of calories from fat is then 300,000 kcal/year for each person.

That 4.48e+14 of kcal from palm oil can provide enough dietary fat to suffice for about 1.493 billion persons. Take away 64% and you are taking away the dietary fat needed by about 1 billion persons (955,700,000 to be more precise).

Our world of 7 billion persons currently produces enough dietary fat for only 6 billion persons [World Staple Crops chart PDF, page 2]. If we stopped using palm oil, we’d be depriving an addition 1.5 billion persons of an essential macronutrient. And since lack of dietary fat is the main cause of world hunger, losing the fat provided by the oil palm tree would push an additional 1.0 to 1.5 billion persons into a state of hunger. The number of hungry in the world would go from about 1 billion to at least 2 billion persons.

How bad are oil palm trees and palm oil? Not bad enough to justify taking away a major source of dietary fat from a hungry world.

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