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Canada’s ‘Buttergate’ highlights U.S. palm oil sustainability

Conor McCabe for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2021

As butter sales have soared over the past year in Canada with an increased demand for baking and cooking, so too have farmgate prices for butterfat. To capture this market potential, some farms have added palm fats to their cows’ diets.

Scientists have suggested that feeding dairy cattle palm oil or palm oil byproducts can lead to increased milkfat output with an increased proportion of saturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are solid at room temperature and are the suggested reason behind the less-spreadable butter experienced by Canadians. Palm oil may be responsible for hardened butter, but milkfat can also be affected by other factors such as genetics and the time of year.

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The real problem is not about safely feeding dairy cows palm oil, which has been done for decades, so much as it should be on tracing how palm oil is grown. Over 85% of the world’s supply of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are home to the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

As demand for the oil has soared in recent years, the land needed to grow the crop has expanded through clearing forests. These forests are home to the world’s remaining orangutan, tiger and rhino populations. Deforestation not only affects endangered species but also eliminates trees that capture carbon and exposes marshes (peatlands), which causes them to release greenhouse gases. These soils make up an estimated 10% of the land in these Southeast Asian countries and store over 65 gigatons of carbon. Releasing all this carbon dioxide and methane would be equal to two years of emissions for the entire planet. Current cultivation on peatlands equates to 20% of Malaysia and Indonesia’s annual emissions, while anywhere from 50% to 75% of Indonesia’s forests could be gone by 2030, given current deforestation rates.

Palm has been a key crop for the entire food system, as it outproduces other oilseeds such as canola and soybean in tonnage of oil per hectare. At this point, palm oil cannot be abandoned, as it will leave a gap that will be filled by other oilseeds. Since these crops are less productive, they would need a greater amount of land, resulting in further deforestation.

There has been a call to improve sustainability through eliminating deforestation, removing peatlands from production and tracing supply chains through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). While there has been progress made through cutting suppliers linked with deforestation, only about 20% of the global palm oil market is currently RSPO-certified sustainable. Additionally, the largest commodity trading companies fail to trace more than 60% of their supply back to the plantation of origin.

In thinking about substitutes, tallow is a saturated fat source that would provide a similar milkfat response. But farms should not use unsaturated fat sources, such as canola, peanut or soybean oil, as these can reduce milkfat production. While palm oil remains a viable option, farms looking to continue usage should consider if their supply chain members are RSPO-certified, have hard-pressed commitments against deforestation and partner with independent validators to ensure a deforestation-free supply chain.

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Previous commitments by large commodity traders for zero-deforestation palm oil by 2020 failed to make their mark. Since the deadline to certify a zero-deforestation supply chain keeps being extended, the time is running out for the orangutans and the forests alike. Thus, the only solution for the palm oil industry is to shift toward sustainable intensification.

The dairy industry has been able to shrink its resource use like few others. According to research in 2009, U.S. dairy has reduced its land use by 90%, water by 65% and emissions by 63% per unit of milk produced since 1944. There is tremendous opportunity for palm oil to do the same to meet its future market projections via producing more with less. In parallel, the U.S. dairy industry is seeking to reach its commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and collaborations can work to drive deforestation out of the supply chains. Yet if these changes are not made now, in a warming world, harder butter may not be a bad thing after all. end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Conor McCabe
  • Conor McCabe

  • Ph.D. Student
  • Department of Animal Science
  • University of California – Davis
  • Email Conor McCabe

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