The field sampling portion of my grand nutrient balance experiment is over! It’s about an 8-10 hour drive from the project site (Kota Fajar) where I get my samples to Banda Aceh where I am based. As the few, small airlines that fly between Banda Aceh and Kota Fajar are basically metal boxes of death with wing-like attachments, all staff are directed to drive in project cars for work trips.

We started off on our long journey needing to stop after 45 minutes at the first big town with a petrol station. What we encountered was this (again, not my photo, but exactly the same scenario):

Photo Sumut Pos: Out of fuel… again and again.

What do to? We waited until almost 4:00pm before giving up on more fuel coming. We picked up 10 gallons at a little roadside stall that sells at a higher price than the petrol stations to tide us over till arriving at the next big town with a petrol station. Again! No fuel! Oh dear. Finally, we arrived at the third big town that had fuel in stock.

But as we were sitting there watching the fuel gauge (OK, only I was, because these co-workers of mine can’t be phased. Everything is either a) “no problem,” or b) “up to you.”), we passed stall after roadside stall selling the ubiquitous gorengan, which roughly translates to “fried thing.” As you can see below these are little morsels that are all deep fried: thin slices of tempe, carrot-stuffed squares of tofu, sweet potato balls, long banana slices, carrot-stuffed egg roll type things, etc, etc, etc. “Fried thing” is commonplace in Indonesian cuisine. I even have a few plates of gorengan in front of me right now, as a few plates are always put out at coffee shops when you sit down and order; it’s a pay-what-you-eat system. The two most internationally known Indonesian foods: nasi goreng and mie goreng are fried rice and stir-fried noodles. They are most often topped with a telur mata sapi goreng, which is literally “egg cow eye fried.” Notice the common word here is goreng, which means, as is now quite evident, “fried.”

Photo Not Mine

Photo Not Mine (again): Action shot.

I was thinking that we sure wouldn’t be in this predicament if we had a diesel engine that could make good use of all that leftover cooking oil that must be currently disposed of in god knows what method (let’s just say that the city I live in, Aceh Besar, has absolutely no organized, municipal waste management service, even though it is literally practically connected to Banda Aceh, the regional capital city that does have one). A 2005 study (Soekirman, et al. Possibility of Vitamin A Fortification of Cooking Oil in Indonesia: A Feasibility Analysis) found that in various parts of Indonesia, people fire up the grease approximately twice a day resulting in a per capita consumption between 15.9 g/cap/day to 32.2 g/cap/day. I personally would not like to think that my daily food intake requires an average of 16-32 gallons of cooking oil!

A few snags to this plan I learned. First, according to this 2005 study, most gorengan vendors don’t waste their oil; they just top up the oil as the volume in their wok decreases. This means that collection would have to be coordinated from homes and identified restaurants that do not use that practice.

A second issue being that cooking oil filters used to make the oil usable in cars filter out food bits and not necessarily melted plastic residue; this of course is only an issue if the scandals of vendors dumping and melting plastic bags into their cooking oil to give a nice, crispy texture is as true and widespread as seems to be reported. Who knows what bits of melted plastic could do to the engine?

However, the biggest snag is that the majority of cooking oil used in Indonesia is palm oil. Not to be sensationalist (although this issue is), but more just trying to quickly and simply boil down an extremely large and contentious issue in a blog post, the problems with palm oil production in Indonesia include:

1) Deforestation including in high carbon trapping peat lands
2) Displaced wildlife
3) Displaced local communities
4) Monoculture with high inputs and no ecological and social diversity
Photos from various sources

Just to also add that even within established palm oil plantations, poisoned fruits are distributed to kill wildlife to keep them from trampling the crop such as the two critically endangered Sumatran elephants early in May (1st elephant and 2nd elephant). And of course palm oil isn’t just used for cooking oil, but also as a major food ingredient, soaps (even eco-friendly Dr. Bronners uses it, although they apparently use Fair Trade palm oil), detergents, cosmetics, plastics, textiles, etc.

It is not that palm and palm oil are inherently evil, but again it just speaks to the scale of industrial agriculture we are continuing to promote. This also quickly leads one down the path to the perceived demand for palm oil. However, is it really a demand? Manufacturers have designed a product that consumers enjoy consuming (that smooth chocolate-y melt of a candy bar vs. those chalky once-a-year Conversation Hearts), but the sheer number and types of products that contain palm oil makes it a non-choice when there are so few alternatives. Another tangent that could be touched on is the industrial junk system of disposable products and over-eating, which is only compounded by the fact that we are 9 billion and counting. We should all reduce our consumption of palm oil plus also going for the organic and sustainably certified palm oil, while also avoiding the creation of the same or bigger problem(s) with any alternative substance(s).