Friday, February 15, 2008

Briefings from the other (vegetable) oil crisis

“The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a native of West Africa,” the Cambridge World History of Food informs us. This light red, and I would argue, vaguely sour smelling cooking oil may be popular throughout the world, but it’s still king around the region, where seven out of 10 people consume industrially processed oil daily.

That’s not to say other oils suffer in comparison. Vegetable oils as a group form of strange culinary religion in West Africa; they are additives to nearly every food imaginable. So popular they are, development organizations have begun fortifying cooking oil with vitamin A, a cheap way to introduce important nutrients into peoples’ diets. Malnutrition remains a problem across the region, so these vegetable oils have become an important source for calories. (Anyone who has eaten street food in the region can attest to that.)

West Africans use palm oil as important ingredients in soups and sauces of all flavors and in the dough made from cassava, rice and plantains. In some countries, it is used in casseroles. (Not my mom’s casseroles, mind you, but these are indeed casseroles.) Finally, people use it here to fry dough balls or fish or plantains.

The best part is palm oil is good for you. Kind of. If the oil has been processed by hand – which still happens in the village – it can be quite nutritious, providing a rich source of carotenoids. However, when processed industrially, which is mostly the case around the world, the palm loses many of its natural nutritional benefits.

For many reasons, palm oil has become a victim of its own success. A recent story in the New York Times points out, an acre of palm oil produces the equivalent of eight acres of soybeans, making it popular with planters. This ratio not gone unnoticed by biofuel producers, who have begun purchasing palm oil on the market, further driving up demand (and prices).

It’s also a cure for obesity. Ok, not really. But because of the health problems related with obesity, many municipalities in the U.S. (most famously, New York City) have tried to forbid restaurants from using unsaturated trans fats, driving up palm oil imports nearly 100 percent in the past year.

When you add up all this rising demand, and take into account the insubstantial 2.7 percent increase in supply – you understand the nearly 70 percent price jump in palm oil during the past year. This is our take-away lesson.

That puts the hurt on people in places like Burkina Faso. Here people are spending a small fortune just so their families can continue digesting vegetable oils. Last year, a liter of corn oil set people back roughly 990 CFA. Today that same bottle costs 1450 CFA. (Let’s go with the currency conversion rate of $1 = 450 CFA.) Brands of industrial vegetable are usually made up of a combination of oils – palm, maize, cottonseed, etc. – and these prices have all skyrocketed. The brand Colza sold for 1,000 CFA per liter a year ago and now runs 1,300 CFA. 750 CFA would get you a bottle of Dinon, but you can’t walk out of the shop with one for anything less than 1000 CFA. Budget constraints force many people to buy oil in smaller quantities. This type of oil is usually sold in clear plastic sacks, and these customers are now hurt doubly. First, the price of oil will increase; secondly, merchants will most likely reduce the volume of oil in the bag. Simple oil, which is unrefined palm oil, sold for 600 CFA a bag in this fashion and now runs about 850 CFA.

Where is OPEC?
As pointed out before, the palm tree grows naturally in West Africa, although people have been transporting the seedlings and replanting them in holdings for centuries. It grows well with other West African staples like cassava and yam and is best tended in small fields. Larger, European-run plantations did exist during colonial times, but they never really took off. However, the plant, along with groundnut, has a long, complicated history with slavery.

The British industrial revolution spurred the European demand for palm oil, where machinists used it to lubricate moving parts in England’s factories. Candle makers also employed the oil to fabricate wax. Colonial rulers in present-day Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and places further north like Burkina Faso planted acres and acres of palm. A tributary in the Niger River was named the Palm River due to the trees planted in its swamps and the production facilities situated next to the water.

According to the Cambridge World History of Food, people learned to hydrogenate oils and fats into products like margarine at the turn of the 20th century, leading to another spike in demand for all types of oils: groundnuts, coconuts and to a lesser extent, palm oil. After World War II, new technology allowed people to use mostly un-hydrogenated palm oil for food products in Western countries.

From the Cambridge Food History:

A rapid expansion of the palm oil export trade followed, accompanied by a marked growth in the plantation sector of production. Between 1962 and 1982, world exports of palm oil rose from about 500,000 to 2,400,000 million tonnes per annum, and Malaysia emerged as the world’s largest producer, accounting for 56 percent of world production and 85 percent of world exports of palm oil in 1982…

By the last decade of the century, yearly world production ran about 11 million tons.

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