Let's stop demonisation of palm oil

17.09.2018

AS environmental awareness about palm oil is strong in Europe, the European Union’s proposed ban on palm oil biofuels by 2020 has been causing anxiety among Malaysian oil palm growers early this year, as EU is Malaysia’s third largest palm oil customer.

Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok’s suggestion about halting oil palm expansion in the country is a welcome attempt to quell the growing anti-palm oil sentiment.

Her aim of getting the palm oil industry to achieve 100 per cent Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification by Dec 31 next year, however, troubles me.

This is even though I have no doubt that a higher MSPO participation will mitigate issues such as watershed protection, pollution, slope protection and customary land rights.

MSPO does not address the elephant in the room. There are oil palm plantations that operate in forest interiors or wildlife corridors. How are these plantations environmentally friendly and sustainable? How can these plantations join MSPO?

Allowing these plantations to attain MSPO certification is akin to betraying the sustainability label of MSPO.

It is also naïve to assume that the truth will not be discovered by consumers. If the truth is publicised internationally, we will not be dealing with just a public relations nightmare.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification used to be the go-to certification scheme for Malaysian oil palm growers, prior to MSPO, which was introduced in 2015.

There is, however, one stark difference between MSPO and RSPO. MSPO allows oil palm to be planted on peat land, while RSPO is pushing for a strict “no planting on peat” policy via RSPO Next. RSPO Next is a voluntary effort that engages with RSPO member companies that have met requirements and guidance of RSPO principles and criteria.

Other conditions of RSPO Next are no deforestation, no fire, reduction of greenhouse gases, and respect for human rights and transparency.

Peat land is important for carbon storage and flood control. Conversion of peat land will release huge amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating the effects of climate change.

It is mind-boggling to think that we are pushing for 100 per cent MSPO certification, which allows planting of oil palm on peat land. How can we sell MSPO products to consumers who value sustainability then?

I am no anti-palm oil conservationist, and acknowledge Malaysian palm oil industry’s contribution to our economy.

However, if we do not start addressing sustainability issues, we will never be able to stop the “demonising” of palm oil.

As a consequence, the industry will continue to suffer from the anti-palm oil sentiment.

The more pressing matter is to figure out how we can tackle the palm oil sustainability issue.

First, recognise that deception will not bring us far. I fear the RM23 million provision from the Finance Ministry to combat the negative perception of Malaysian palm oil would be a futile exercise.

Instead, we should acknowledge that we need to improve the sustainability aspect of Malay-sian palm oil, and that there should be serious consideration to revise the MSPO certification scheme, especially the part on “planting on peat land”.

Second, we should demonstrate that we are committed to tackle the palm oil sustainability issue cohesively.

I am for former environmental activist Wong Tack’s suggestion to set up a tri-ministerial advisory council involving the Primary Industries Ministry, Water, Land and Natural Resources Ministry, and Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Ministry.

Inputs from other ministries will better ensure that blind spots are not overlooked.


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