Friday, 21 August 2009

Palm oil industry can ill afford bad rap

Palm oil industry can ill afford bad rap -

Letter to editor

Mohana Priya Veerabarathi
Aug 19, 09

Cadbury's New Zealand was reported to have bowed to consumer pressure and stopped using palm oil as a replacement for cocoa butter in the making of chocolate products.

According to consumer groups in New Zealand, palm oil has been linked with the clearing of natural habitats in Malaysia and Indonesia in an unsustainable manner.

They called on Cadbury's New Zealand not to condone to such acts.

The Oil Palm industry is very important to Malaysia. In year 2007 alone, the total export volume of palm oil was approximately 13.7 million tonnes valued at about RM33.1 million.

Any bad publicity will spill over to other countries importing palm oil and where consumers express growing concerns on the environmental impact of their consumption.

Some green groups argued that there has been illegal clearing of tropical forests in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

These countries are the largest producers of palm oil, where tropical lowland rainforest, representing the world's biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem, is in danger.

Studies must be carried out to evaluate the implications of current palm oil industry to the environment and biodiversity. Cleaner options in cultivation and downstream processing must be priority research areas.

Malaysia should not only lead in cultivation and processing technologies but must also be at the frontier of clean technology in the oil palm industry.

It is said that Indonesia has overtaken Malaysia in world market share of the palm oil production. We must look into value added contributions and remain leaders in the industry.

According to our former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia already has 4.4 million hectares of oil palm plantations nationwide, including 600,000ha in Sarawak.

So, do we still need to clear more and more forests for oil palm? Can we come up with better technology in order to get more yield to meet the demand?

Oil palm also requires intensive use of fertilisers. Again, we need to look into the impact of artificial fertilisers on soils, other plants, animal and water.

Environmental Impact Assessment should be balanced and not biased towards cash crops. Unsustainable clearing of land and forest will eventually contribute to climate change.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) found that development of new plantations has resulted in the conversion of large areas of forests with high conservation value and has threatened the rich biodiversity in these ecosystems.

Use of fire for preparation of land for oil palm planting has been reported to contribute to the problem of forest fires in the late 1990s. The expansion of oil palm plantations has also given rise to social conflicts between the local communities and project proponents in many instances.

It is very important that the main stakeholders are consulted during the development of policies, standards, and better management practices.

The Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities should lead activities and involve large GLCs and small holders to be socially responsible in their activities and production of palm oil and lead the clean technology development for the industry.

Companies and the regulators have to realise that the unchecked rapid expansion of oil palm plantations will cause unsustainable development and this will affect the environment and surrounding communities, namely indigenous people.

In Malaysia, the state government has jurisdiction over land. Thus, state governments must ensure unsustainable plantation and processing methods will not affect export of palm products namely palm oil.