Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Failure to counter new anti-palm oil tactics will be costly to M'sia

Tuesday September 15, 2009

Comment by Errol Oh

IT may be time to sound the alarm. Fuelled by a cocktail of environmental issues, the anti-palm oil lobby in the West is gaining traction, and failure to counter this well can be costly.

The lobby’s message is simple – the palm oil industry harms the planet – but once it seeps into people’s minds, undoing the damage will take years.

The latest indication that the momentum is working against the industry is the Sept 9 ruling by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on an advertorial taken out by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) several months ago.

Carried in the April 25-May 1 edition of The Economist, the advertorial (Palm Oil: The Green Answer) talks about the economic importance and environmental sustainability of Malaysian palm oil. It was meant to defend the industry, but the ultimate effect is quite different.

The Friends of the Earth, which describes itself as the “most influential environmental campaigning organisation” in Britain, submitted a 20-page complaint that picked apart the advertorial and pointed out sections that it alleged are in breach of the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing.

The NGO also provided background information, including photographs, to support its contention that Malaysian palm oil is not sustainably produced.

The ASA conducted an assessment (which included correspondence with the MPOC) and upheld the complaint, saying some claims made by MPOC in the advertorial were “likely to mislead”.

The result is that the ad cannot appear again in its current form. Perhaps the greater damage to the Malaysian palm oil industry is that those who have been attacking it can go around claiming vindication. And this is, in fact, what they are doing.

In an immediate response to the ASA adjudication, Friends of the Earth biofuels campaigner Kenneth Richter said: “The ASA is right to ban this misleading palm oil ad.”

British newspaper The Independent, which has advocated a consumer boycott against food products containing palm oil, began its report on the ASA decision with this: “The palm oil industry misled the public by claiming production of the vegetable fat was sustainable and socially useful, according to an official investigation.”

Naturally, the MPOC is deeply unhappy with the latest development. It may not be a body blow, but it hurt all the same.

Said chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron in a Sept 9 statement: “By censoring our message, this relatively small group of people is blocking the entire British public’s access to a diverse range of views and information about palm oil.

“Consumers have a right to have information about the various products and services available to them and a right to determine for themselves which they want.

Consequently, we are deeply concerned that the ASA is acting as an interested party in the public debate on palm oil rather than as a neutral and objective arbiter.”

This is not the first time that the ASA has ruled against an MPOC advertisement. In January last year, the authority upheld a complaint from the Friends of the Earth against the council’s television ad.

However, the ASA should not be a target of the palm oil industry’s ire; the authority hands out similar decisions to many companies and organisations all the time. For that matter, anger and petulance are not useful in this context. Self-contemplation, honesty and intelligence are definitely essential.

There has to be a reality check. Are we taking this threat to the industry as seriously as we ought to?

The worry over the fate of the Earth is powerful leverage, and the passion for the cause is contagious. The anti-palm oil lobby has long gone beyond being merely pesky. It may well turn into a mini movement that will sway the decisions of palm oil buyers.

The industry’s response has to be a balance of sophistication and forthrightness. It is a mistake to have a “been there, done that” attitude. New challenges demand new approaches and solutions. If we run out of ideas, it will not be long before we run out of luck.

· Deputy business editor Errol Oh believes that right is might, but he recognises that might alone does not win wars.