Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in the Production and Consumption of the Palm Oil Boom


The palm oil boom began in the 1970s to meet the rapidly growing demand for vegetable oil[1].

A high-yielding crop with versatile applications, palm oil has become deeply embedded in our economy, used for human consumption, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and biofuel[2]. Moving from a multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary approach on the basis of evidence enables a comprehensive understanding of the surge in palm oil consumption and the resulting economic, ecological, nutritional and sociological effects.

Evidence in EconomicsEdit

Economic evidence is largely quantitative.[3] Empirical research provides the basis for building economic models for causal inference.

Selling red palm oil in a market

International trade of palm oil is the dominant macroeconomic indicator of the growing industry's impact[1]. Net exports, a component of GDP, is the most common model used to measure national economic growth. Thus, in export-led economies where palm oil production constitutes a large proportion of net exports, trade data is an informative form of evidence. Economists calculate net exports of palm oil using trade estimations from[4]:

1. Customs records, as outlined by the International Merchandise Trade Statistics (IMTS) Manual.

2. National accounts, by accounting for economic ownership of the palm oil, as outlined in the IMTS Manual.

Economists analysing the microeconomic impacts of the palm oil industry collect evidence by dissecting the market into its stakeholders and applying models to assess the benefits to these groups from the growing palm oil sector[5].

For example, studying palm oil workers, a classical supply and demand model would suggest the following:

↑ Demand for palm oil → ↑ Demand for labour in corresponding labour market → Upwards pressure on wages → ↑ Income of workers

These models can be checked against empirical data, for example the change in wages of palm oil workers can be compared to those in other commodity industries, to give the model credibility.

Evidence in EcologyEdit

Ecology relies on quantitative research methods to understand the relationship between living organisms and the environment[6].

Deforestation, a major concern of the palm oil boom, has been observed and recorded by ecologists using satellite imaging[7][8][9]. High-resolution images captured from satellites, like Landsat, collect data on land use and environmental change[10][11] as a result of palm oil plantations. Tools like unsupervised classification, visual classification, and observation of spectral characteristics are used to quantify the plantation area[7][8][9]. This identification process is repeated on datasets of satellite images from different time periods to compare changes of land use over time. Statistical models and formulas then calculate the rate of deforestation[8].

Through this methodology, ecologists are able to gather evidence on the statistically significant rates of deforestation due to the spatial expansion of palm oil plantations. A limitation of this methodology is its reliance on computer algorithms that may either mistakenly identify other vegetation as oil palm or are unable to detect oil palm because of the spacing between trees[9].

Evidence in NutritionEdit

Nutrition, the process of assimilating food, is linked to the health impact of palm oil on consumers[12]. Nutritional evidence is obtained through scientific research, experiments, and clinical trials[13]. These methods are usually integrated, analysing palm oil itself and then experimenting and observing its effects on subjects to understand the influence of palm oil on lipids in blood as compared to other oils. Differing trials were led with different parameters varying the participants' characteristics, sample size, and intervention characteristics. Their reliability can be assessed on the Jadad scale used for clinical trials[14]. The method used is observing the impact on the body through regular intake of palm oil and integrating it into the subject's diet. Researchers analysed the principal fatty acids in palm oil[15] and how they impacted functions of the body, e.g. body weight, metabolic rate and blood pressure.

Clinical trials have demonstrated that consuming fresh palm oil has benefits such as the intake of vitamin A and E and reducing lipid distribution in the body, however, there are risks to palm oil when not consumed fresh[16][17][18].

Evidence in SociologyEdit

Sociologists, who study the social aspects of palm oil[19], also investigate its nutritional impact, although using different evidence: interviews, ethnography, survey research, and systematic observation[1]. They typically use household surveys, presenting structured questionnaires to households chosen by multistage random sampling procedures[20].

Making Palm Oil in the Democratic Republic of Congo[21]

The collected data is then analysed to form descriptive and inferential statistics, which mostly demonstrate positive impacts on producing communities.

Household surveys were utilised to investigate farm household diets. Unlike nutritionists who find quantitative evidence, sociologists collected face-to-face interview responses to a structured questionnaire to estimate and record calorific consumption and dietary composition of oil farm workers – utilising social, rather than scientific, indicators for wellbeing[22].

Researchers may employ the Social Life-Cycle Assessment to examine the social impacts of a product’s production[23]. In Malaysia, researchers identified two key stakeholders, palm oil plantation workers and local communities. These stakeholders completed a set of questionnaire interviews regarding topics including discrimination, health and safety, and social benefit[24]. Questions were structured on a five-point Likert Scale to examine the difference between expected and perceived quality of each criterion. Once descriptively analysed, the data suggested production has positive impacts, with affirmative outcomes in most sub-categories[24].

Disciplinary TensionsEdit

Finding cohesion in the evidence presented by individual disciplines is the biggest challenge to understanding the impact of the palm oil boom with an interdisciplinary approach. This is due to the disparity between disciplines themselves: Economics studies decision-making within markets, organisations, and countries[25]; sociology, human social behaviour[19]; ecology, the relationship between living organisms and ecosystems[6]; and nutrition, nutrients in relation to an organism's functioning[26]. Therefore, each discipline examines divergent aspects of the issue. Consequently, methodologies and the evidence collected in each discipline often conflict, creating difficulties in integrating the disciplines to form a conclusion regarding the impact of the palm oil boom.

For example, nutritionists and sociologists examine the dietary implications of palm oil; however, while nutritionists use quantitative methods like clinical trials to study the biological impact, sociologists use qualitative research like interviews to examine different indicators, such as households' fruit and vegetable intake. Integrating these findings is difficult as they have conflicting focuses and types of evidence.

Tensions also arise between disciplines with inherent methodological differences, complicating combining data. Economics uses models that simplify reality, limiting the number of variables considered and externalities accounted for[27]. Applying a simplified model like GDP when analysing the palm oil sector contrasts with research in the natural sciences, specifically ecology, where raw data provides positivist evidence, relative to a more constructivist economic approach.

Assumptions between disciplines may also conflict. Economics fundamentally assumes human rationality[28]. Sociologists reject this idea, instead explaining human behaviour as a product of social factors, thus not always rational[29]. They suggest, for example, that social forces influence the diet of palm oil farmers. This highlights the problem - to what extent can we integrate two disciplines whose findings don't necessarily conflict yet have opposing fundamental assumptions?

While it is difficult to compare the outcomes of research due to the nature of the evidence itself, taking an interdisciplinary approach to this issue allows a more complete understanding. Integrating evidence to tackle this issue allows an inter-disciplinarian to interpret that despite negative ecological impacts, there are important positive social, economic, and nutritional impacts of the palm oil boom to consider.


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