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Published: Monday August 6, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday February 14, 2014 MYT 1:38:13 PM

Facts and fallacies

Countering the anti-palm oil lobby means debunking the myths of its propaganda.

IT’S like a scene from a movie. A young Caucasian blonde with her hair neatly slicked back under a headband is brushing her teeth in a YouTube video. She spits into the sink ... and blood splatters across the white ceramic surface.

We hear the narrator’s voice as the words “palm oil” appear in what looks like blood. We are led to believe that an array of products – toothpaste, margarine, chocolates – are directly linked to destruction. “Most products we use are helping to destroy orangutan habitat. Extinction is imminent for these beautiful creatures,” says the narrator.

Then comes the statistics – the same numbers often first appearing on the websites of certain international environmental non-governmental organisations, which were picked up and disseminated by the public on blogs, Facebook and YouTube.

“The equivalent to six football fields of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest is logged every minute, to make way for one vegetable oil that is used in hundreds of everyday products,” the narrator goes on.

The video is rousing, to say the least, but highly inaccurate. Some would call it “blackwash” – a term that refers to misleading and unverified accusations of avoidable environmental degradation.

Blackwashing is a trend that was tackled in a 2009 paper published by the Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation, Biotropica. This practice often amounts to no more than scare-mongering propaganda aimed at making headlines, raising the profile of environmental debates and increasing donations.

The report titled Wash And Spin Cycle Threats To Tropical Biodiversity states that blackwashing could eventually prove detrimental, because if exposed for what it really is, it erodes positive public perception and generates consumer apathy towards genuine conservation effort by diminishing the trust members of the public have invested in environmental groups.

Debunking myths

While many environmental NGOs perform important and credible work, they – especially the activist groups – are mostly manned by a large body of non-scientist volunteers.

These volunteers want to do something to make a difference, but most are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to fact-based statistics and loosely-assembled figures designed to incite strong emotional reactions for campaign support. For organisations built around attention- grabbing campaigns, accuracy does not always seem to be imperative.

One example is the claim a few years ago by the environmental activist group Rainforest Action Network that orangutans would be extinct by 2011. A spokesman for the organisation later admitted: “We are a campaigning organisation, so research is not our main thrust.”

This misinformation, it transpired, had come from a news report by the British newspaper Guardian, which in turn got the information from a British orangutan conservation group – a case study that shows how easily inaccuracies can be disseminated and translated into heartfelt and widespread misconceptions.

The orangutan extinction claim was soon debunked because it was glaringly inaccurate, but others are not so easily disproved and would require additional research which the public is not likely to carry out, especially when the source of the allegations is perceived to be credible.

A case in point is the “six football fields of rainforest destroyed per minute” claim touted by some lobbyists against the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia. Assuming that a football field is equivalent to 0.6ha, this amounts to a whopping 1.9 million hectares of rainforest lost per year – which is a stark contrast to actual figures for forest land conversion to oil palm plantations.

“A huge exaggeration, but then again, negative stories always sell better,” says United Plantations Berhad vice-chairman and executive director of corporate affairs Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen at the recent round table talk on palm oil organised by The Star.

He clarifies that the total rate of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia combined is 2.3 million to 2.4 million hectares per year, of which Indonesia accounts for 2.2 million hectares per year – according to the United Nations.

However, the total area worldwide converted to oil palm has over the last three years only averaged 400,000ha per year, he adds.

Prior to the 1990s, oil palm expansion was implemented at the expense of forests designated for agricultural conversion. The rules have since changed, in Malaysia at least.

The local palm oil industry is now restricted to expansion on land previously converted for other crops such as rubber and coconut, and logged-over forest zoned for agriculture.

And the 2010 FAO Global Forest Resource Assessment states that there has been no reduction in “primary forest” between 1990 and 2010.

Missing the point

Lobbyists calling for consumers to shun products containing palm oil are missing the point. What are the alternatives?

By 2050 the world population is expected to swell to 9.3 billion – an extra 2.3 billion mouths to feed compared to the present.

Last year, the FAO reaffirmed its estimate that rising populations and incomes would require a 70% increase in global food production.

Bek-Nielsen says a burgeoning middle class has also seen hundreds of millions of people removed from the poverty bracket, particularly in Asia, over the last 15 to 20 years. “Whether you’re talking about Bangladesh, India, any other part of South-East Asia, Africa or South America, this is a trend that is not going to stop.”

While consumption of oils and fats has literally doubled per person over the last 25 years, he says, in many parts of the world – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria for example – consumption of oils and fats per person per year is still way below average, compared to that in developed countries.

The fact that there are only a few countries which are net exporters of oils and fats – Indonesia and Malaysia being among them – also calls into question the feasibility behind the “say no to palm oil” stance.

Anti-palm oil lobbyists are pushing for soybean, sunflower or rapeseed oil instead, but where oil yield per hectare is concerned, oil palm is king – it takes only 0.26ha of land to produce one tonne of palm oil. In contrast, 2.2ha of land is needed to produce one tonne of soybean oil, 2ha of land for one tonne of sunflower oil, and 1.5ha for one tonne of rapeseed oil.

Therefore, if world demand for edible oils is to be met through alternatives to palm oil, it would entail more intensive use of land resources. Tonne for tonne, palm oil beats other oils for land efficiency.

“Last year, the total area worldwide planted with oil producing seeds was 241 million hectares, and of that, 43% of the area was planted with soybean.

“Oil palm only accounted for 5.6% of the land planted with the seven major oil seeds, but oil palm accounted for 31.3% of the 170 million tonnes of total oil produced,” says Bek-Nielsen.

Fighting back

Despite the crop’s importance, the palm oil industry receives little recognition for its positives, such as the relatively low level of deforestation for planting new crops compared to the early years, says Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron at the round table talk. “They (the green movement) have not offered any solution. A lot of criticism yes, but solutions? No.”

A far more constructive expense of energy, in light of the wider challenges to meet global demand for edible oils in the long term, would be to focus on how the certification of sustainable palm oil models, enabled by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), can be improved.

The organisation may have come under criticism for its inability to effectively police the industry’s rapid growth since its formation back in 2004, but considering the lack of alternative oils, that doesn’t seem reason enough to give up on it.

As for now, the palm oil industry is fighting back. “For us, it is an issue of how to tackle communication, and constructive engagement (with the public),” says Felda Global Ventures Holdings Berhad group president and chief executive officer Datuk Sabri Ahmad during the round table talk.

Fellow round table participant Datuk Lee Yeow Chor, the group executive director for IOI Group of Companies, concurs. He suggests that the industry should tackle bare allegations with “well-researched and well-documented scientific facts.”

“We also have to be media savvy, and use all kinds of media – including new media and social media – to spread our message not just to the business sectors but directly to consumers as well,” he says.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Palm Oil, palm oil, oil palm

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