Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Palm oil. Another Malaysian in denial.

Personal note: This writer appears to suggest that all the news reports, including those in the National Geographic, are inaccurate.


09/04/08 New Straits Times, Malaysia


On a recent trip to London, I chanced upon an article in National Geographic magazine describing the supposed threat posed to Borneo's rainforest by oil palm.

The claim was that oil palm has taken a heavy toll on the indigenous communities. A subsequent letter to the editor cited a United Nations prediction that an estimated five million indigenous people in the Indonesian part of Borneo will lose their homes or livelihoods if biofuel crops like oil palm continue to expand.

The writer proceeded to condemn Malaysian palm oil.

I had to sympathise with the Malaysian palm oil industry for the never-ending negative publicity it has been getting all these years, often for things not of their doing. Sometimes I wonder when palm oil will instead be praised for its tremendous contribution in providing affordable edible oil to the world.

What if the world is denied the supply of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia?

Despite what has been portrayed by some, fats are an important part of a healthy human diet. Even the vilified saturated fats help regulate the metabolism of the human body.

The same goes for cholesterol, another much-criticised natural product. Cholesterol is naturally produced in the body for a reason. It has been reported that a body devoid of cholesterol can spell trouble for the brain, not to mention a declining libido! Cholesterol, like all the other constituents in the body, will only create problems if there is an imbalance.

The advice is to maintain a good balance of "good" and "bad" cholesterol. It is, therefore, quite misleading to pass a blanket judgment saying that all cholesterol is bad.

Palm oil has been attacked ever since it became clear it was assuming leadership of the global oils and fats market. First, it was to do with bad nutrition. This was neutralised with the unveiling of convincing scientific findings suggesting the contrary. The palm oil industry had had to cough up quite a sizable funding to clear its name then.

The irony is that when palm oil was an insignificant player in the global trade, being produced in small quantities in West Africa, there was practically no talk about palm oil being unhealthy, or threatening the rainforest.

The attack on the oil palm has now reached worrying levels. It started in the European Union, but consumers in the US are also getting disturbing news about oil palm posing serious threats to the environment. And this is happening while palm oil industry players in Malaysia and Indonesia are collaborating with various stakeholders in the supply chain, including buyers and some environmental non-governmental organisations, to embrace the sustainable palm oil certification.

A few companies have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for producing palm oil meeting all the agreed criteria.

That there has been no let-up on the criticism which poses serious credibility issues with the RSPO. Why are there still non-governmental organisations out there that do not accept the RSPO certification? What will it take to satisfy them?

Admittedly, this issue on the environment is quite distinct from the earlier issues on nutrition. Those critics were easily neutralised through credible scientific facts.

But it is not that easy to verify the credibility of the sciences related to the environment. This is understandable. Even climate change and global warming are still being challenged by some sectors of the scientific community.

It is still best to adopt a precautionary stance, as the palm oil industry has been doing all these years. In Malaysia, for example, the industry has always been exploring environmentally-friendly approaches in their plantation and milling practices. The research undertaken by industry players, including the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, indicates that concerns of environmental impact have always been paramount.

This is how practices such as zero-burning, use of natural predators, deployment of biofertilisers and zero-waste in palm oil mill effluent management have evolved all these years.

I wonder what would happen if one day palm oil producers in Malaysia and Indonesia decide they have had enough of this nonsense. What if they decide not to export any of the palm oil they produce, and instead use it all to feed their domestic demand for food, oleochemicals and fuel?

I think its use as biofuel would take up the bulk of the palm oil produced. What would happen to the world price of oils and fats if palm oil, which now accounts for more than 30 per cent of the global trade, is suddenly taken out of the world supply?

That would surely drive up the world prices of oils and fats. If that happens, there could be riots where palm cooking oil is an important food item, especially among the poor. We have seen this before.

Would that put a stop to this unfair criticism of palm oil? It may or may not. The richer countries may increase their subsidies so consumers will not feel the effect. But high prices aside, the shortage of oils and fats will be felt by most if not all users of oils and fats.

With such a prospect, the consumers of the world should not continue taking the supply of palm oil for granted. Palm oil has a cushioning effect on the world price of edible oils. The more palm oil is produced and made available, the better it is for all.

* The writer is a fellow of the Malaysia Academy of Sciences