Intriguingly, palm oil is relatively cheaper, although we import it as its production is less in India. The oil is consumed and also used as a raw material in certain industries. The EAT-Lancet commission report in 2019 recommended that 25-30% of our diet should be oils/fats consisting of palm oil (or other oils) up to 6.8 grams per day and unsaturated fatty acids up to 40 grams per day.
The other popular edible oils are mustard oil, ground nut oil, soybean oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, etc. Most of these edible oils are made up of unsaturated fatty acids. All edible oils are liquid in room temperature and have triglycerides (more than 90% of their biochemical compositions).
What makes palm oil unique is that it is solid in room temperature with a melting point of 39°C, as per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), because of high contents of palmitin and stearin. Palmitin and stearin are triglycerides consisting of three palmitic acid and stearic acid moieties on a glycerol backbone, respectively. Both palmitic acid and stearic acid are high in calorific value and comparatively unhealthy. Biochemically, they are long chain saturated fatty acids.
Fatty acids are building blocks of triglycerides. Palm oil is routinely fractionated into hard and soft components to develop different formulations with other edible oils, some of which may show better physicochemical properties and healthy attributes. The hard fraction of palm oil is called palm stearin and it liquefies completely above 60°C. It contains more solid fat with triglycerides of a single saturated fatty acid (e.g. palmitin and stearin). The soft fraction is called palmolein and is liquid above 18°C (as per the FSSAI). It contains more nutraceuticals (pharmacoactive micronutrients like tocopherols, tocotrienols, carotenoids, etc), more unsaturated fatty acids (e.g. palmitoleic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, etc), and hence it is relatively healthier.
Palm stearin is commonly used for physical blending or interesterification (a lipase enzyme-catalysed reaction of blending oils/their fractions) with other oils to improve the melting point, whereas palmolein incorporates nutraceuticals and unsaturated fatty acids in the processes of blending and interesterification.
Is palm oil healthy?
High levels of saturated fatty acids in palm oil and coconut oil are bad for health as they increase the level of bad cholesterol, viz. low-density lipoprotein. One of the consequences of this is thickening of blood vessels affecting the blood flow causing serious problems. Fractions of palm oil like stearin and palmitin are believed to be difficult to digest in the digestive tract as the required melting temperature of these hard fats is above the body temperature. Undigested fats get deposited along the intestinal lining and block the absorption of other nutrients through the lining. Such problems are common in sedentary lifestyle and junk food-eating populace.
Palm oil being cheaper, many eateries use it or palmolein for deep-frying of fast-food items. The deep-frying oils are generally not recommended for reuse as oxidation products accumulate after each frying. However, street vendors tend to reuse the same oil.
On the other hand, as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5), 2.3% and 8.4% increase in the non-vegetarian food consumption was observed among women and men, respectively, compared to the NFHS 4 by the 15-48 age group. Non-vegetarian food consumption adds substantially to increasing the saturated fat intake of Indians. Consuming higher saturated fats from either oil (like palm oil) or non-veg items by sedentary workers is a cause for health concern.
National mission for edible oils
Palm oil is not traditionally preferred edible oil in India. As per the Rajya Sabha records, its production in India in the crude form was 2.88 lakh tonnes in 2020-21. According to the US department of agriculture, the world production was 7.9 crore metric tonnes in 2022-23, of which 85-90% were contributed by Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the Solvent Extractors’ Association, in 2022-23, India imported 59% of the total vegetable oil as palm oil, i.e. 4.39 lakh tonnes.
Considering India’s annual production and import figures of palm oil, the country needs close to 6 lakh tonnes of the oil in a year. However, under the National Mission for Edible Oils- Oil Palm, the central government is pushing for oil palm plantation to increase the crude palm oil production to 11 lakh tonnes by 2025-26.
As part of this target, in addition to Andhra Pradesh that contributes more than 83% to India’s palm oil production, new areas will be covered for oil palm plantation, including the Indo-Myanmar mega biodiversity hotspot spread across the Northeast India. As such, this move should have sounded a resistance alarm among the northeasterners because the project will require clearing of forests and a change in the land use pattern in this ecologically sensitive region.
Eviction for clearing poppy plants or oil palm plantation?
Under the Oil Palm Mission Manipur (OPMM), consultant MS Khaidem had revealed that the oil palm plantation drive in the state will be spread over six districts covering a total area of 66,652 hectares, of which 11,662 hectares will be in Churachandpur, which is the epicenter of the current ethnic strife that erupted on May 3.
The proposal is being pushed by the govt at a time when the climate change is being felt in Manipur. The Manipur State Action Plan on Climate Change reported in 2013 that Manipur was expected to witness an increase in the temperature by 1.7°C by the end of the 21st century.
Another research paper in Current Science (published in 2018) on climate resilient agriculture in Manipur from an analysis of various climate parameters from 1954 to 2014 predicted that the rainfall in Manipur would rise causing a decrease of 10% in crop yields by 2030.
All these studies suggest that any major changes in the land use and agri-horti practice will worsen the impacts of climate change. However, the consultant of OPMM exuded confidence reportedly in a workshop organised in June 2022. He revealed that the plantation would be done in the abandoned shifting cultivation lands in the hills, fallow lands and foothills.
Jhum or shifting cultivation is part of Kukis’ sustenance and it is intricately linked to their existence. The Kukis of Manipur have been practicing it since ages. The salient feature of jhum cultivation is to move on to another area when the cultivation land is not productive enough. This requires clearing of the forest for cultivation. Therefore, there is nothing called abandoned jhum land as the farmers leave the land uncultivated only for natural rejuvenation. After a certain period of time of natural rejuvenation of the soil, they will come back to the same land for cultivation again.
Conflicts will arise when such temporarily uncultivated lands are used for oil palm plantation. Jhum cultivation produces variety of vegetables, root crops, paddy, etc, on which the cultivators sustain themselves. Additionally, in the interest of food security of the local farmers, planting only oil palm is not desirable.
Taken together, one of the possible causes of the ongoing ethnic clashes in Manipur may be the apprehensions of land grabbing among the Kukis after evicting them in the name of forest conservation or clearing poppy cultivation with a motive to set the stage for oil palm cultivation in the hills.
Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan teaches at Gauhati University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views are personal.