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The good oil – or not, as the case may be

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Stephen Leeder and Shauna Downs

Think oil – the sort you dig out of the ground and the sort that grows on palm trees.  The extraction and processing of both is big business.  Big business and health are joined at the hip.  Look first at the fossil fuel variety.

Doha, a city of 200,000 in Qatar, a peninsula that pushes into the bottom left of the Arabian Gulf, rises from the desert sands like a gleaming massive space ship recently arrived from an exoplanet or from the set of Star Wars. Its prosperity derives from its oil exports.  GDP per head of population (2 million) is the highest in the world.  Like other Gulf Nations, especially the Emirates, its politics are plutocratic and the sheiks have immense, if frequently benign, power.  Qatar spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year sending citizens abroad, often to Europe and North America, for complex care for cancer and other serious disorders, although heavy investments in new hospitals will soon enable Doha to become a magnet for medical visits itself.

What the Gulf nations face by way of a health challenge is familiar to those who have watched with horror as the Pacific nations have moved away from traditional diets rich in fish and root foods to highly-processed foods that are rich in fat, salt and carbohydrate.  The resulting increase in obesity and diabetes is like a macabre psychodrama in which entire populations are coerced into eating their ways towards metabolic chaos.  Rates of type 2 diabetes in the Pacific, and now in the Gulf, are around the 20 per cent mark.  We are not talking here about a mild ‘touch of diabetes’ with little consequence but the real McCoy – with the immense hassle of treatment, a natural history of slow but steady deterioration, and vascular, ocular and renal complications.  We sell mutton flaps, so fatty that there is no market for them in Australia, to Fiji and Tonga.  The commercial drive rides over concerns about health.  We do not do ourselves proud with this behaviour.
The Gulf States have prospered immensely from their oil and the pace of development has been deeply impressive. But the consequent downturn in physical activity needed to secure food and the quality of what is sold on the food market is deeply troubling.  A visit to a gleaming supermarket in Abu Dhabi will reveal that you can buy almost anything known to you from Australia, but you will struggle to find ‘lite’ products and few carry any kind of nutritional label.  Oil, one may conclude, is good for lots of things, but developing economies struggle with the health consequences of that prosperity both in terms of physical activity and food supply.

Fly from Doha to Delhi. Here you will not find the achievements and excesses of oil that have enabled the air-conditioned luxury of Doha.  The food supply is fragmented and chaotic, with many small producers and food supply chains that are so challenged by inefficiency and lack of refrigeration that 50 per cent of all food produced does not get to the table.  Of that that does, the oils used in its production often contain trans fat, a form that is now known to be a serious cardiovascular hazard.  The trans fat comes from palm oil, the most widely consumed oil for food on the planet.  Malaysia, Indonesia and several South American nations have prospered mightily by planting oil palms where once rainforests flourished. Palm oil is easy to produce and transport and finds its way, supported by government subsidies, into many common foods in India and other countries. 
In economically-advanced nations such as the US, serious efforts are being made to change the supply of oils away from trans fat in favour of mono-unsaturates, including canola.  The regulatory responses to trans fat in the US have created market opportunities for enterprises such as Dow Chemicals to develop productive and profitable crops such as canola.  Farmers are rising to the new challenge.  On estimate, 700 million tons of trans fat has been removed from the US diet between 2005 and 2012.  Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, who introduced bans on trans fats, must have a sense of achievement.
The risk, as we have seen with tobacco and mutton flaps, remains that commercial enterprises that are challenged by rising health awareness in developed economies, quietly move their activities off shore, with no concern about the health consequences for millions of people. 

Oil out of the ground and oil from a palm are huge commercial successes.  With the rising tide of diabetes attributable to changing dietary practices as part of the prosperity that the oils bring, our attitudes toward these commodities needs serious rethinking. That need not lead us towards punitive, restrictive and profit-diminishing behaviours. As the example of Dow and canola shows, smart negotiation can create winners all round.  We need intelligence, lateral thinking and commitment.  As Bloomberg showed in New York, it helps greatly to have leading politicians on your team.

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