Saturday, January 19, 2008

Food Business: A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

This week's Saturday NYT article on food A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories made it to the front page of the paper. In it Keith Bradsher details a handful of factors that are pressuring the global market for cooking oils, especially Palm Oil. Not surprisingly 1st worlders are part of the problem; local solutions across Asia --including subsidies, price caps, and rationing-- have created a gray market for palm oil and, in one case, contributed to a riot that left three people dead. Over cooking oil.

In a nutshell, the demonizing of trans fats here in America (which I'm not opposed to at all, but is no real replacement for a diet with health benefits) and the rising consumption of oil-derived biofuels here and in Europe have contributed to a 70% jump in the price of palm oil over the last year. I take the rising cost of food for granted. It's most visible to me when Arizmendi raises the price of their cheese rolls by twenty five cents, their pizzas by three dollars. A bourgeois data point that, in its banality, smoothes over some pretty rough edges:
The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

The article goes on to say that the great thing about oil palms is that they are incredibly efficient producers of oil. In some kind of couldn't make this up crisis of conscience for Whole Foods shoppers, plantation owners in Malaysia are slashing and burning tropical forests to make room for more oil palms, destroying habitats for endangered orangoutangs, and dispossessing the indigenous peoples of Borneo as they go - spurred on by the protein-oriented food demands of emerging middle-classers from China to Africa.

Few things suggest more fully the degree to which the availability of relatively high quality cooking oil is taken for granted here than Rachel Ray's reductive reduction of Extra Virgin Olive Oil to, EVOO.

Least surprisingly, the article paint a very different picture from the fetishized production of local organic olive oils we see here in the bay area. Still, in its locality, this does suggest one course of action.

Photo Credits: 'Oil Palm Nursery' by Flickr user wajakamek, 'Oil Nut Press' by Flickr user raysto, both are licensed under Creative Commons.

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