Writing: Justin White
Illustration: Emily Donnelly
Palm oil and soya: both of these ingredients sound familiar to us and can be found in everything from chocolate to lipstick, even hidden in what we feed to livestock so it doesn’t appear on the label. Where these two ingredients come from, however, is of greater concern. A discussion about the use of these two ingredients becomes even more concerning when shifts in agriculture take place. No longer are these two being manufactured for the greedy hands of the Western world, but they are also a common occurrence in two of the world’s largest emerging economies, China and India. From a sustainable development perspective, this is nothing short of a disaster, as not only has this caused extensive deforestation and widespread environmental concerns, but there have also been devastating consequences for the local native and indigenous populations of the regions where palm oil and soya are farmed (Rosset, 2011).
The first question one must ask is: how can crops cause such a situation in the first place? The answer lies in the term land grabbing. The term ‘land grab’ refers to when a foreign nation or corporation attains land outside of its own nation for the purpose of commercial development. One could even go a step further and say it’s a modern form of colonialism. So in this environment of ‘land grabs’, what happens when there’s an emerging market for cheap agricultural foodstuffs? Conglomerates come in to developing countries and exploit native peoples and the surrounding environment for profits. Therefore, there is cause for alarm when the countries with the first and second largest populations in the world find themselves to be the largest importers of soy (China) and palm oil (India).
Meat has become so popular in China that their per-capita annual consumption has increased four times since 1980 (Schneider, 2014). This has not only been due to large scale industrialisation of the country, as one might assume. The Chinese government views promoting industrial meat production as a means to modernisation and a way to satisfy the middle and upper classes, as well as increase China’s global capital (Schneider and Sharma, 2014). So where does the feed for this increase in consumption come from? Soy is commonly used as grain for livestock, and it is not necessary to look any further than China’s import records to find the answer. “By 2003, [China] became the world's largest importer of soybeans. In the 2011–2012 trade year, China imported 56 percent of the total global soy market” (United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, 2012, as cited in Schneider, 2014).
Land grabs were a direct result, taking place most notably in Brazil, as “[land grabbing] offers a way to approach and further politicize the connections between industrial meat in places like China, and soy frontiers in places like Brazil” (Schneider, 2014). Countries are willing to participate in the trade as it draws money to their economies but “populations are crowded into towns and are dependent on social welfare and gifts financed by the profits made from soya exports” (Rulli, 2007, as cited in Schneider, 2014). Therefore, these populations’ livelihoods are not sustainable, as when large conglomerates fail to bring profits or the corporations who run the plantations perform capital flight, there is nothing left for the native and indigenous people. They are left with the surrounding environment, which is no more than a barren field, void of the rainforest which used to grow there and bring fruits to their way of life.
As stated, the world’s largest importer of palm oil takes the form of another emerging economy, India (Awan Setya, 2016). In comparison with other vegetable oils and their crops, Indonesian palm oil in particular has the lowest production costs and is where India sources 70% of its palm oil (McCarthy, 2010). Like with the production of soy in Brazil, the area cultivated for palm oil has doubled in the last ten years in Indonesia (McCarthy, 2010). Indonesia is being exploited for its palm oil, as demand from not only India, but the world, is rising. McCarthy states how growing inequality can be a product of this, as “palm oil is a rich farmer's crop that requires large investments in quality seedlings, large quantities of fertilizer, and careful husbandry” (McCarthy, 2010).
This undermines the argument of many scholars that levels of wealth in the region are increasing, as this is only applicable to a privileged few. (Euler et al, 2017). The wealthy come to own the commodities through land grabs and seek nothing but profits. Thus, a parallel can be drawn between them and the colonialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Common land had been stripped from the native and indigenous populations of Indonesia, who had been the sole proprietors. They are now left with nothing but to work on the plantations, built on land that had once been theirs.
In analysing these two issues with remarkably similar consequences, one can come to many conclusions. Primarily, there is hope for change, but the path is foggy and will most likely come through a combination of global sanctions and grassroots movements. Despite this, it may be better to look upon emerging economies as a whole. With countless countries in the same position, it is imperative for the global community to prioritise environmental sustainability and economic development. This would prevent current situations from becoming as disconcerting as they are now, instead promoting healthy relationships that will prove to be more successful regarding long term sustainability goals.
Awan Setya, D., A. Riza Noer and E. Erfita (2016). Elasticity and competitiveness of Indonesia’s palm oil export in India market.
Economic Journal of Emerging Markets 8(2) 148-158.
Euler, M., et al. (2017). Oil Palm Adoption, Household Welfare, and Nutrition Among Smallholder Farmers in Indonesia.World Development 93 219-235.
McCarthy, J. F. (2010). Processes of inclusion and adverse incorporation: oil palm and agrarian change in Sumatra, Indonesia.The Journal of Peasant Studies37(4) 821-850.
Rosset, P. (2011). Food Sovereignty and Alternative Paradigms to Confront Land Grabbing and the Food and Climate Crises.Development 54(1) 21-30.
Rulli, J., ed. (2007). United soya republics: the truth about soya production in South America. [online] Available at: (http://lasojamata.iskra.net/en/?q=node/91)
Schneider, M. (2014). Developing the meat grab. J. Peasant Stud. 41(4) 613633.
Schneider, M. and S. Sharma (2014). China's Pork Miracle?: Agribusiness and Development in China's Pork Industry. InU. International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus ed.
United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service. (2012).
Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade. [online] Available at: (https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/livestock_poultry.pdf) [Accessed 9 Apr. 2014].