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Why We Can’t Do Away with Palm Oil Yet

palm-oil150In terms of the total calories provided to the world, palm oil ranks sixth, behind corn, wheat, rice, soy, barley [PDF file]. The palm oil tree also provides palm kernel oil. FAOSTAT data for 2012 puts the world total for palm oil at 53,269,743 metric tonnes (mt), and for palm kernel oil at 6,045,006 mt. That total is just shy of 60 million mt, but palm oil production is on the increase. Total world production of vegetable oil is 180 million mt. Palm oil is one third of the total vegetable oil available to the world population.

USDA Nutrient Database states 8.84 kcal/gram for palm oil and 8.62 kcal/gram for palm kernel oil. Using the above figures for each oil, the total kcal is:

palm oil: 470,904,528.12 million kcal (470.9 trillion kcal)
palm kernel oil: 52,107,951.72 million kcal (52.1 trillion kcal)

Total kcal provided to the world population by the oil palm tree per year:
523,012,479.84 million kcal (523 trillion kcal)

At 2740 kcal/day, one human person uses about one million kcal/year. So the total from palm oil and palm kernel oil is enough calories for 523 million persons. But of course no one has a diet of just palm oil or just dietary fat. Typical recommended levels of fat in the diet are 25 to 35% of total calories from fat. So at an average 30% of calories from fat, the oil from the palm oil tree provides enough fat for 1,743,374,932.8 persons (1.74 billion persons).

If we do away with oil from the oil palm tree, we would need to replace that dietary fat with about 60 million mt of vegetable oil. At an overly-optimistic yield of 0.24 metric tonnes of oil per acre for sunflower and canola oils, we would need to add 250 million new acres of agricultural land, just for vegetable oil to replace the palm oil. And it would take many years to develop that new land and reach current good yields for any crop.

So we need to continue producing dietary fat from the palm oil tree. We don’t need to dedicate new agricultural land to that crop. Instead, new land should be devoted to annual crops, especially oilseeds.

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