For years, economists, along with everyone else, thought of palm oil as exactly what it looked like: a pinkish, sludgy irrelevance. People knew that it was used to make food and soap but everything else about it, including its origins, seemed slightly distasteful.
In 2009 palm oil has not changed its colour or texture, but as an economic indicator it is unrecognisable. In a world of food and energy crises, of credit implosions, green politics and the rise of Asia, it has become the gauge that straddles them all — the ultimate global speedometer.
Through its price fluctuations and ever-changing trade destinations, palm oil has become an accurate measurement of hundreds of global markets.
Its versatility is the key, which is the main reason why the world consumes 42 million tonnes a year — twice as much as it did a decade ago. For all of the criticism that palm oil plantations attract for destroying the rainforest and endangering wildlife, the demand is a reading of a global population trying to feed and power itself under challenging circumstances.
The growth of palm oil has tracked the rising wealth of the middle classes in China and India, which buy up a quarter of all global supplies every year. Those who can afford to fry more of their food, and when other edible oil stocks can not keep up, or when prices rise too far, palm oil becomes the alternative.
As a biofuel feedstock, palm oil can meet a similar demand with energy, offering an alternative strategy when the markets are knocked out of kilter.
Palm prices tell us how rich the average Chinese family feels at new year, and with what sort of food the Muslim world will be breaking the fast each night of Ramadan. It tells us where London brokers think crude oil prices are heading and what Chicago futures traders think of this year’s soya bean crop and how badly El Niño is hurting South-East Asia this cycle.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, which between them meet about 87 per cent of the global demand, palm oil price movements dictate government policy, shape economic prospects and draw billions of dollars of direct investment.
For Malaysia, palm oil competes with tourism and manufacturing as the three biggest sources of economic growth. A couple of years ago, a bumper haul and dazzling prices allowed the Government in Kuala Lumpur to give a bonus to every civil servant in the country.
In Indonesia palm oil plays an even more central role in the country’s economic future. One popular view is that Indonesia belongs in three of the world’s most promising and exciting, emerging markets. The theory is backed by the idea that an industry that already employs two million people has the scope to double its output by 2014.
Perhaps most critically of all, palm oil is the canary in the mine for biofuel policy-making around the world. Setting stomachs and cars against each other in direct competition for calories is a finely balanced game, more likely to go wrong than right.
A poorly calculated subsidy in one country can cause dangerous price rises in a food commodity on another continent. In almost all cases, the price of palm oil is where the folly emerged.
Source: The Times Online, by Leo Lewis