Vegetable Oil Shortage Highlights Need to Feed People, Not Cars

The reasons are both political and environmental, but also because we are feeding cars, not people.

A man on a truck full of palm fruits.
Harvesting palm fruits in Indonesia.

Dimas Ardian / Getty Images

Prices are climbing and supplies are tightening for so many things, from lithium and copper to lumber, gasoline, and even sand. Now, add vegetable oil to the list. It isn't just a problem for frying things at home—vegetable oil goes into so many food products and even into gas tanks.

Some of the causes of the vegetable oil shortage are environmental. Canada's production of canola oil, the made-up more polite name for rapeseed oil, has dropped significantly because of last year's extreme heat and drought on the prairies. And then there is soybean oil, coming from countries in South America that have been experiencing droughts. In Malaysia, palm oil production was cut by a shortage of workers caused by COVID-19.

Then there are the political reasons for shortages. Ukraine and Russia account for 60% of the world's sunflower oil so the price has tripled as their exports have been shut down after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But perhaps the most interesting and surprising circumstance is what has happened with palm oil—a Treehugger bête noir since we started, with Robin Shreeves writing how it endangers orangutans and causes carbon emissions, Katherine Martinko asking if boycotting palm oil is the right move, and Melissa Breyer listing 25 sneaky names for palm oil. Everyone on Treehugger has had something to say about it.

Now everyone is talking about Indonesia, the world's biggest producer of palm oil, which has banned exports. The country produces 59% of the global supply, but according to Hans Nicholas Jong of Mongabay, there are shortages of it in the domestic market after it was all exported internationally due to demand and high prices. Indonesian President Joko Widodo says, “I will monitor and evaluate the implementation of this policy so availability of cooking oil in the domestic market becomes abundant with affordable prices.”

Nith Coca, Triple Pundit

We produce more than enough cooking oil to feed the world—the problem is that we put too much of it into our cars, trucks, and planes, where it does far more harm than good. It’s time to shift to a more sustainable system.

Writing in Triple Pundit, Nith Coca had an interesting take on Indonesian palm oil that added context to the global politics happening here. He noted that "its initial rise as a global commodity in the early 2000s wasn’t for its use in ramen noodles or Nutella, but for use in biofuels." The European Union mandated biofuels be added to transport fuel and imports grew by 400%.

More recently, studies by the European NGO Transport and Environment found that "it releases three times the greenhouse gases emissions of fossil diesel." After that, the E.U. vowed to cut palm oil purchases. And, as Coca writes, this caused problems:

"For Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together account for upwards of 85 percent of palm oil production globally, losing the European biofuels market meant less demand. It got so bad that in 2019, before the pandemic, oil palm was at record low prices globally. So, both countries decided to increase demand at home. How? Biofuels."

In Indonesia, 30% of fuel must be biodiesel, and there is no round table for sustainable palm oil here. It could be coming from any kind of plantation, "so it could be argued that all the palm oil boycotts and consumer pressure have merely led to conflict palm oil being burned in Indonesia rather than eaten abroad."

In the Toronto Star, Dalhousie University food expert Sylvain Charlebois suggested biofuel mandates should be canceled, but that's not likely when everyone is complaining about gas prices. He concluded things are going to get a lot worse before they get better:

"As we navigate through this global food crisis, we are expecting more countries to instinctively ban exports and even hoard commodities to secure food supplies. Each decision will add more pressure to the market, raising prices across the board. Over the next several months, things will most certainly get to a point where many will experience famine or acute hunger—perhaps more than 100 million people. Devastating."

Coca is even blunter:

"The crisis in Ukraine, and Indonesia’s export ban, should be a wake-up call for the planet. We produce more than enough cooking oil to feed the world — the problem is that we put too much of it into our cars, trucks and planes, where it does far more harm than good. It’s time to shift to a more sustainable system."

Or, as we have always said on Treehugger: feed people, not cars.

View Article Sources
  1. Coca, Nith. "What Indonesia's Palm Oil Ban Really Means for Climate and Energy." Triple Pundit, 5 May 2022.

  2. Charlebois, Sylvain. "The world is running out of oil—vegetable oil." Toronto Star, 5 May 2022.