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Oil Palm Elephant and the Blind Men

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Various unsubstantiated utterances have been made by some on oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka, without looking in depth into the subject. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing! A leading politician, in the south, some months ago, prior to the elections, went to the extent of felling a few oil palm trees along a stream bank, probably growing out of seeds dispersed by birds and animals from existing plantations around. He was, of course, seeking to impress villagers in the oil palm cultivating areas ,prior to the elections! Some villagers have been vociferously demanding the banning of the crop, claiming that it is drying up their water resources, although the available scientific evidence does not support their contention. Anyhow, they have now succeeded with the President banning the crop without an in- depth analysis of the issues at stake!

Interestingly, the Government Medical Officers’ Association, some days ago, conducted a seminar on coconut oil, but the unstated objective appeared to be to promote coconut oil and concurrently degrade palm oil! However, except for a few presentations, that of a historian and several Aurvedic specialists, the others failed to articulate effectively a factual comparison of the two crops and their oils.

A lecturer of the Wayamba University ‘sang the usual song’ of oil palm cultivations excessively drying the soil and water bodies as against rubber, without supporting data. He should have conducted a comparative hydrological study of an exclusively oil palm cultivated area as against a nearby rubber only area to support his contention. The published comparative evapo-transpiration evidence of oil palm and rubber do not support his views. A biochemist (a retired professor) comparing the chemical composition of fatty acids in coconut and palm oil stated the virtues of coconut oil fats, but hardly anything about palm oil fats. It is a well known fact that coconut oil is a functional food , that means it has health benefits other than the nutritional. Its main health benefit is the high composition of the so called medium chain fatty acids, lauric, capric and caproic acids, which constitute nearly 63% of the total fatty acid content. Lauric and capric acids are reported to have anti-microbial properties. In fact lauric acid is also a component of mother’s milk and is reported to provide suckling babies immunity against harmful microbes. On the other hand, some coconut fats namely, lauric, myristic and palmetic acids comprising about 74% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are reported to elevate cholesterol. It is to be noted then that lauric acid is doing both good and bad! On the other hand, palm oil lacks the medium chain fatty acids, there being only a trace of lauric acid and accounts for about 46% cholesterol elevating saturated fats, nearly all of it being palmetic acid. Nevertheless, it has 39% oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, and 9% lenoleic acid, an unsaturated fat both of which reduce total cholesterol. It is important to note that the monounsaturated fat, oleic acid, in palm oil, as also in avocado and cashew nuts, decrease only the (bad) LDL cholesterol but not the good (HDL) cholesterol. Palm kernel oil on the other hand, comprising less than 10% of the total oil content in the fruit, has a fatty acid composition, very comparable to coconut oil. On the whole, therefore, palm oil can be argued to be more heart friendly than coconut oil! Regrettably, the good professor should have explained all this to the participants of the meeting! However, it is now accepted that consumption of coconut oil in moderation does not elevate the risk of heart disease. The same applies to palm oil.

The professor, however, was on the whole, sceptical of oil palm and one of his hacks was on tree trunk’s use as timber, a common practice in many oil palm growing countries. He stated that the trees are harvested only about every 25 years, and, therefore, the factories will have to remain closed most of the time! Is he not aware that coconut timber is harvested only every 60-80 years, but the coconut timber mills function throughout because all timber harvesting, whether oil palm or coconut, is not done at any one time!

One of the agenda items of the GMOA Seminar is felicitation of Dr D P Athukorale, a well-known cardiologist. I should add a word on my association with him in defending coconut oil consumption in the 1990s when I was Chairman of the Coconut Research Board. However, my first interaction with him dates back to 1983 when, I consulted him for high blood lipids, having returned from Brazil, spending one year on a World Bank mission, and eating beef steak regularly and lavishly! Dr Athukorale’s advice was then, amongst other things, to cut down on my saturated fat intake including coconut oil!

A decade later, when I took over the appointment as Chairman of the Coconut Research Board, one of the first things I came across was the above poster which had been widely distributed the world over! Coconut and palm oils were then accused as ” artery-clogging tropical oils”! Naturally, I was highly disturbed and began digging into the literature on the subject and educating myself on the impact of coconut oil on cardio-vascular diseases.

The history of it is that coconut and palm oil were the main vegetable oils used in the U.S and Europe prior to the World War 11. However, when vegetable oil shipments from SE Asia were disrupted due to the war, the west naturally looked for alternative oil sources and hit upon soya and corn oils. In fact at that time soya oil was used for making paint amongst other uses, but hardly as a dietary oil! With the war ending, and coconut oil shipments arriving again in the U.S and Europe, the soya lobby with the support of the American Heart Association, launched a massive misinformation campaign against coconut and palm oils, as depicted in the poster. The Ancel Keys diet- heart hypothesis, that was propounded by then, that saturated fats elevate cholesterol, leading to coronary vascular diseases, was widely accepted in the U.S and Europe, and people avoided consuming saturated fat. The misinformation campaign was so effective, it was said that the people were more scared of saturated fat than ghosts! The soya lobby, backed by the American Heart Association even attempted to ban import of tropical oils . As a consequence, the U.S government appointed a Senate Sub Committee to investigate into the complaint. However, the Coconut Authority of the Philippines hired a team of experts comprising cardiologists and other specialists from the Harvard Medical College to defend against the proposed ban. The team successfully argued the case pointing out that, apart from other evidence, whereas there were then 227 deaths for every 100,000 Americans due to cardiovascular diseases, there were only 22 Philippines, and the coconut oil content was less 1% in the US diet as against 6% in the Philippine’s!. In that setting it should have been natural for our doctors too to fall in line with the western thinking on saturated fats!

When we (CRI) started our campaign promoting coconut in 1994 , I approached Dr Athukorale, feeding him with new scientific information on coconut oil I had collected. We jointly had a TV programme in Rupavahini and also several seminars including ones in the Colombo and Peradeniya Medical Faculties explaining matters. Prof. Shanthi Mendis, cardiologist, then with the Medical Faculty, University of Peradeniya who had conducted controlled trials feeding coconut oil as against corn oil to subjects, was initially rather cautious with coconut oil consumption, but later came round taking up the position that, consumed in moderation, its risk was minimal!

Things have taken a U turn in the last two decades, in that coconut oil, one of the two so called “artery-clogging tropical oils”, has become the ‘ darling oil’ of the west’ and palm oil is present in nearly 50% of the processed food items in the supermarket!

In conclusion, the global demand for vegetable oils is increasing with increasing population and affluence. Oil palm’s comparative advantage is its extremely high oil productivity with a global average of 3.5 t/ha as against 1t/ha or less for coconut and all other oils. About 43% of the global vegetal oil supply is from oil palm, and it will continue to be the world’s highest oil supplier. Because of increasing demand for food but agricultural land limitations, there is a global trend of replacing less productive and profitable crops with the more profitable, and in this regard too oil palm’s vantage position as an oil crop cannot be matched. We produce only 50,000 MT of coconut oil whereas our vegetable oil demand is in excess of 200,000 MT; and even with substantial expansion of the coconut cover, the oil demand cannot be matched. There is thus a need to expand the oil palm cultivation to at least 50,000 ha to meet our oil requirement. The concurrent foreign exchange savings will be substantial. There is no evidence of environmental damage if the needed land is provided by replacing rubber. The small farmers are abandoning rubber cultivation because of low profit margins, and the net profit from oil palm is several fold that from rubber. Ideally, therefore, oil palm cultivation should be introduced to smallholders, too, as in other countries.

Dr. Parakrama Waidyaratne

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Opinion

Cattle slaughter ban and common sense

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By Rohana R. Wasala

It was reported in the media (September 8, 2020) that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal for a ban on cattle slaughter received cabinet approval, as well as the approval of the government parliamentary group. Some Buddhist monks, and allied groups who have long been agitating for such legislation to be enacted, raised euphoric cries and invoked blessings on the Prime Minister and the President. I don’t know how the two privately reacted to the acclamation they received on the basis of a controversial measure, tentatively proposed, but not finally agreed upon: Did they accept the still unearned accolades with a feeling of exultant self-vindication or with a sense of gnawing doubt that the whole thing might misfire? They are more likely to experience the latter state of mind, because this ban cannot be imposed without harmful repercussions, given the unalterable ground realities that must be recognized and accommodated before enacting and implementing the proposed ban. This is so particularly in relation to the prevailing economic and political crises in today’s globalized world, of which Sri Lanka is a small member, hardly noticed, except for her strategic location and her beleaguered state due to the same circumstance, trapped between three superpowers – two global and one regional. The domestic fallout could be even more critical. This is the worst imaginable time for such a radical measure to be implemented, however popular it could be among a section of the people.

But let’s not be too alarmed. Media Minister and Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella (a good choice for the latter job, in my view) managed to assuage the fears of sceptics, like me, who are not convinced about the actual benefits, but are really concerned about the possible unsavoury economic, socio-cultural, and political consequences, of a ban being imposed on cattle slaughter, when Rambukwelle told the local media that Prime Minister Rajapaksa ‘hopes to ban cattle slaughter’ and that ‘he  would decide when to submit the proposal to the government’. The government announced that a final decision will be delayed by a month (as reported in the online Istanbul/Turkey based TRT News Magazine). Rajapaksa’s cautious non-commitment hints at the possibility of  a reassessment of the pros and cons of the move and points towards the likelihood of sanity finally prevailing. But this will need a lot of reverse convincing to do among the convinced (I mean, among those who are for the ban).

From my point of view (for what it is worth), it is vitally important to be mindful of how the ban would be viewed abroad, as well as among domestic non-Buddhist religious minorities, though it might go down well with a majority of Buddhists and Hindus. There is no question about trying to assert our rights as an independent sovereign nation and to pursue political and economic policies that we believe serve the best interest of our people. However, divisive party politics of the recent years have landed Sri Lanka in such a vulnerable situation, globally, that any government  that even occasionally dares to defy undue superpower pressures in order to accommodate the legitimate demands of its own people, gets labelled as undemocratic, autocratic, oppressive, and therefore ripe for replacement. For a Sri Lankan government to be on its best behaviour is no guarantor of its survival in a context where India, China, and America are each looking after their own national interest in a competitive relationship with one another at the expense of Sri Lanka’s very survival. But what can we do about it?  I think that the present government, under the joint leadership of the President and the Prime Minister, is doing what it can in these internationally beleaguered  and internally treacherous times. Insisting on passing potentially divisive legislation is no way to help them. 

Today, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, we have the first executive head of government since independence who has found a way to consult with the Maha Sangha as a monolithic entity through non-political, non-sectarian interaction. He appointed a board of monks called the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhawa (the Buddhist Advisory Council) to advise him, and had its first meeting on April 24, 2020. It consists of the Mahanayake Theras of the Three Nikayas and a group of prominent scholar monks, who are specialists in various fields, connected with the Buddha Sasana, in which they have time-honoured claims and commitments. The monks meet with the President on the third Friday of every month. In their last meeting, on September 18, they commended the President for taking steps, in accordance with their proposals, for, among other things, the protection of historical sites of archaeological importance, development of Pirivena education, designing of a national educational policy, control of the drug menace, etc. But, as far as the Derana TV news coverage was concerned, there was no mention of the cow slaughter ban proposal. Can’t this be an indication that it is not being perceived as such a pressing issue? 

There is no gainsaying the fact that Buddhist monks worked tirelessly for the victory of the nationalist camp, and they did not do so for any personal benefit. There are a number of activist monk groups each articulating different issues of broad national interest such as environment protection in addition to the central issue of the threat to the Buddha Sasana, the predominantly Buddhist nation (the people) and the unitary state that comes from the handful of foreign-sponsored separatist racists and religious extremists among the peaceful mainstream Tamil and Muslim minorities, respectively. These traitorous elements dominated the previous regime. The President appointed the Buddhist Advisory Council, partly in recognition of the service they did in helping to save the country from misgovernance, but primarily in fulfilment of the constitutional requirement of giving foremost place to Buddhism. We can expect nothing but good from this interaction between the prominent Nayake and scholarly monks and the President. Is it likely that they will  fail to understand the problematic nature of the proposed ban on cattle slaughter?  

Be that as it may, we can’t overlook the fact that some well known leading activists, heads of some animal rights and public health maintenance-related organizations, welcomed the proposal with great enthusiasm, despite the principal proponent’s non-committal stance. These included such prominent personalities as the Justice for Animals and Nature Organization Chairman  Ven. Dr Omalpe Sobhita Thera, founder of Sarvodaya Dr A.T. Ariyaratne, and GMOA head, medical specialist Dr Anuruddha Padeniya. They  published a public announcement-cum-invitation to ‘all professional and civil organizations’ asking them to attend a meeting  at the ‘Sangha Headquarters,’ on Alvitigala Mawatha, on September 20. They are urging the enforcement of the ban proposal. An announcement-cum-invitation was issued on September 17, the day that marked the 156th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala, who had pioneered the agitation for putting an end to cattle slaughter. In his time, probably, it was more meaningful and less controversial to do so than today. This announcement appeared in the online Lankaweb Forum page the same day, where I read it. It must have been published elsewhere, too. The author and principal signatory to the document, Ven. Sobhita, wrote (in translation): ‘It need hardly be stressed that the principled, determined and fearless enactment of the praiseworthy decision taken by the government MPs, headed by the Prime Minister, requires the approval and support of the general public. We believe that we are going to get your fullest cooperation in this regard. We intend to call a meeting of delegates from such organizations and take decisions in connection with organizing the relevant future activities to achieve this aim.’

Personally, I have the highest respect for these three eminent persons (who have already done much commendable service to Mother Lanka in their different capacities), and the others mentioned in the document, and also empathize fully with their commitment to the cause they believe in,  but I do not share their conviction about the feasibility, the functionality, or the actual benefits, of the proposition that they are wholeheartedly supporting. I would support a movement with the same devotion to stop animal slaughter in general, not just cattle slaughter, if there was such a movement, but I know that it is an unlikely initiative, an impossibility even. I don’t see any rationality in such a project. The kind of free rational thinking that the Buddha advised the young Kalamas to adopt without blindly following him – the way to Enlightenment, budh,rational intelligence, that Narendra Modi identified some months ago, invoking the common intellectual heritage of India which we, too, share through Buddhism,  as opposed to yudh, war/conflict, as the best way to resolve problems – seems to be at a premium, i.e., there is paradoxically little available of it – in the sacred Treasury of Theravada Buddhism that Sri Lanka is often claimed to be. Occasional submergence of practical rational thinking as in this case – our rational faculty sometimes becomes manifest in its humblest form of common sense – could prove costly in more than one sense for the whole country.

Rational minds can conceive of alternative ways of dealing with a problem, when sometimes the most direct solution is likely to create worse problems than the original problem itself like the cattle slaughter ban, if implemented, will certainly do. It is not likely to contribute towards enhancing intercommunal goodwill as already implied above. Many Muslims are employed in the meat industry, and there are secondary industries, like tanning (making leather out of animal hides), shoe making, and the manufacture of leather products, such handbags, waist belts, saddles, some percussion instruments, etc. Import of beef from abroad will lead to increase in prices, in addition to the loss of jobs, and the drain on scarce foreign exchange that it will entail. We may easily imagine the problematic implications for the important dairy milk industry, the development of which is essential for stopping the import of toxic milk powder. 

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Opinion

Youth battle against drugs needed

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Twenty-one-year-old student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul read a 10-point manifesto aimed at reform of Thailand’s politically powerful monarchy

If our university students are daring enough to challenge the government for their rights for a clear-cut education policy, that no government could change, according to their whims and fancies or for the benefit of corrupt ministers, and state officials, then our university students’ unions could also challenge the government, regarding the drug mafia.

They should follow the 21-year-old. Thailand girl, from Thammasat University, who stood up against Royalty and called for a monarchy change, saying all humans have red blood and called for various reforms, as she fearlessly delivered the manifesto, including the call to change the constitution and education. This speech could have sent her to jail for 15 years, but she stood her ground.

Our university students, for the sake of our young generation, and those to be born, could challenge the government to take genuine action, as promised at the recent election, against all those who are involved in the drug mafia, be they ministers, officials or relatives. It is a well known fact that such an amount of drugs, etc., cannot be imported without the help of VVIPs.

Only the challenging from the young generation of all fields could induce positive action to expose the culprits. Mr. President, you asked the people to give you the strength to fight all corruption. You got it, but the people are worried about the outcome. Was it an ‘election gundu’? Do it, though you may not get the goodwill of corrupt ministers and officials, but the people, the honest and the hard working parents will be thankful to you.

Save the children before introducing any long term plans. Remember this drug mafia is very much worse than terrorists, because ministers did not get commissions from the war, but drugs bring in millions of rupees.

 

Barbara Seneviratne

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Opinion

Reduce number of vehicles on our roads

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Please allow me a short comment on the perceptive article by George Braine, in The Island ( 4th September, page 6), on renationalizing the private bus service. I hope it catches the eye of our President.

Firstly, his observation about how in Hong Kong and (Singapore too), buses are washed every day, and trains are comfortable and clean. Let alone comfort, couldn’t the “higher powers” provide us AT LEAST with CLEAN public transport, despite the now ingrained lack of hygiene in Sri Lankan society (it’s now part of Sri Lankan culture!). We have become an unhygienic people immune to uncleanliness – if you doubt this, tell me the name of ONE South Asian country which is as filthy as us. (Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong …?). Habits such as spitting betel leaf in public, onto the pavement, throwing “Buth Parcels” on to it for the purported purpose of obtaining “merit”, by feeding the disease- infected stray dogs and cats (I almost forgot to include the rats) – this is us!. If you still doubt, go have a look at the state of our Public Toilets ANYWHERE, including the “international” Airport. Our children should be taught at an early age, how to use a toilet correctly – obviously most parents don’t know this skill.

Forty years ago, the belching buses with people hanging onto the footboard for dear life, were a common sight. It remains so today – in what aspects did we lopsidedly “Develop”? Highways – for whom?

Recently I travelled from Colombo to Galle, and last week, from Colombo to Nuwara-Eliya by car. On the Galle trip, I saw private buses tearing along, racing each other on the wrong side of the Galle Road. It was reported the following day that three had died in a head-on collision. On the Nuwara-Eliya trip, even up in the dangerous winding hills, private buses were engaged in a permanent roadrace to gather passengers.

In the very same newspaper (September 4th), on page 3, headlines read – “Three persons killed, three others seriously injured in car mishap”. It goes on to say that due to speeding, two young men sent themselves to a premature death. At least three die every day in fatal road accidents. The country’s Traffic Police are out of touch with reality. Dishing out parking fines (for the ulterior motive of collecting revenue!), watching idly as trishaws (a law unto themselves), cut across the line of traffic, allowing motorcycles to “short-cut” along the pavement, Mr Braine’s suggestion that vehicle imports should be BANNED (including Duty Free ) for five years is absolutely right! I hope the President will firmly refuse to bow to pressures in this regard, in the public interest.

He will receive fervent thanks from the public at large if he can reduce the number of vehicles on our already clogged roads. By prohibiting vehicle imports he also creates jobs for the numerous vehicle repair shops needed to keep existing vehicles in good order.

 

JAYANTA KURUKULASURIYA

 

 

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