Comment: The suggestion that New Zealand farmers are responsible for the extinction of orangutans due to the use of PKE is both extraordinary and irresponsible. It is a dangerous myth that can be busted easily with the facts, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.
The use of Palm Kernel Expeller (PKE) in New Zealand is not responsible for the extinction of the Sumatran orangutan. In fact, it isn't responsible for the extinction of any orangutan, whether Sumatran, Bornean or Tapanuli.
It is certainly true that all three are on the critically endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The finger of blame has been pointed at logging, forest fires and fragmentation by roads. Also blamed is the conversion of tropical forests to palm plantations in response to international demand for oil.
Oil is approximately 99 per cent of the value of the crop; PKE is a byproduct. No business is constructed on the basis of 1 per cent of the value of a product.
Oil is the driver of the palm oil business and oil is in many of our everyday items from food, through house cleaners to personal care products – it is everywhere because it is cheap and versatile with no odour or taste.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that palm oil is in approximately 50 per cent of the packaged products in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick.
WWF also states that palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of some of the world's most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.
Listen to Rowena Duncum interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
PKE is what is left after the oil for the products is extracted. In the past it was burnt or left in heaps to decompose. In the last twenty years it has been used as a stock feed. New Zealand is the biggest importer of PKE, using approximately half of the supply.
Here it provides a high fibre and energy supplement for ruminants. In contrast to many supplements, winter brassica being the most challenging, PKE can be fed without a period of adjustment.
It has saved animals from premature slaughter, enabled body condition maintenance and pregnancy, and also weight gain in meat animals.
It helps cows to express their genetic merit and performance capabilities; it provides a feed buffer against drought, flood and other untoward climatic events.
The 2013 drought did not hit New Zealand production as hard as the 2008 drought because PKE was available and the infrastructure for transport and feeding had been developed.
The Hawke's Bay drought this year would have been even harder on animals (and farmers) without it.
Farmers have learned and adapted – and are now more resilient than they were last decade; they are also more efficient and hence sustainable. The economy has benefitted.
PKE mitigates risk – when drought occurs, all home-grown feed is affected.
Of course the issue is still deforestation and the endangered orangutans, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino - not because of PKE, but because of the basic demand for oil.
The WWF does not suggest switching the world from palm oil. It points out that "to get the same amount of alternative oils like soybean or coconut oil you would need anything between four and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species".
This is an often-over-looked point in the debate.
WWF also acknowledges the importance of palm oil as contributor to the GDP of emerging economies, with millions of smallholder farmers depending on producing palm oil for their livelihood.
Palm oil has enabled roads, schools, hospitals and tertiary colleges to be built. It creates employment and productivity gains. It has enabled impressive development with improved medical care and education at all stages.
Boycotting palm oil is not the answer; WWF suggests demanding more action to tackle the issues and go further and faster, is.
The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is working to make a difference, creating a production standard that sets best practices producing and sourcing palm oil. It involves most of the global industry, and Fonterra uses RSPO sources for the by-product, the PKE.
By certifying palm oil, RSPO protects the environment (no deforestation, no expansion on peat, no use of fire and no human exploitation) and the economy of the local communities. Purchasing of the PKE adds a small amount to that economy and removes a waste product that no longer needs burning or rotting in place.
Global palm oil production is still increasing. Expansion is meeting the demand created by increased population, biofuel production, the skin care market and accelerating personal disposable income. In addition, ever more uses are being found for it.
Managing current plantations for increased production is the best bet for the future, and the economic benefits will allow improved protection of endangered species.
From New Zealand it is difficult to comprehend that deforestation is not the only cause of orangutan demise. They are killed when they destroy precious crops; they are hunted for food, souvenirs and sale as pets.
Checking facts before spouting forth or going to print is always a good idea. The suggestion that New Zealand farmers are responsible for the extinction of orangutans due to the use of PKE is both extraordinary and irresponsible. It is a dangerous myth that can be busted easily with the facts.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist and a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org