MPOC chairman avers that palm oil is healthy and its plantations sustainable.
DRIVING to the Putrajaya Marriott Hotel was somewhat of a task for me, considering my absolute lack of navigational skills. However, it was a pleasant surprise to pull up to what appeared to be like an oasis at the end of my long travel.
Car parked and Midori Japanese Restaurant located, I sat down to a Power Lunch session with Datuk Lee Yeow Chor, the group executive director of the IOI Group of companies and chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).
As Lee ordered our lunch, our conversation flowed around how many in the Klang Valley regard IOI as a property company, when two-thirds of its business is actually focused on oil palm plantations. He shared with me that this core business won a place in his heart when he was still schooling and that he used to accompany his father to visit the plantations. Despite pursuing a legal education (at King's College London) and having practised for several years, the childhood seeds of the family business had been planted. So, in 1994, he joined IOI. He immersed himself in this career with dedication and within a few short years, was an active member of the Rubber Growers Association.
“I sat in the council before it was disbanded about eight or 10 years ago. When it was disbanded, there was a consolidation of the industry associations. It became the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) four associations became one. I was involved in it right from its formation until now.”
Not content with confining himself to local organisations and associations, and ever on a quest to learn, Lee soon found himself a part of the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO).
“It's an international body with 20,000 members globally, and there are 60 Malaysian members. The mission of the organisation is to promote leadership through education and the exchange of ideas. For the global leadership conference, we invited speakers like Tony Blair, Sir Richard Branson, etc.
“I've been a member for six years and I'll be the Malaysian chapter chair in the coming year. We have a forum... about seven or eight of us gather on a monthly basis. We share the issues that we face and also our achievements,” he said, explaining that in addition to discussing business, the YPO also emphasises the importance of personal growth and development.
Besides the YPO, Lee has also been an active participant in the Forbes Global CEO Conference which was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2011. The conference was attended by approximately 400 people from around the world, and through their invitation, Lee gave a talk and led a dialogue session on commodities and energy, with the focus on palm oil.
Speaking of palm oil, our conversation took a turn to environmental impact and sustainability.
“One common view is that because of the biofuel pull, Malaysia and Indonesia are frantically felling forests and planting oil palm. But it's not like that. It's a long, sustaining industry that started as rubber plantations a hundred years ago, and we've converted those rubber plantations to oil palm plantations. It has a long history and it's an important foreign exchange earner for the country. Two years ago, RM80bil came from palm oil, and last year, RM70bil,” he explained.
“If you look at the statistics of forest cover, the United Kingdom has 20%, Germany 30%, while Malaysia has 55%. Malaysia is a green lung for the world,” says Lee with pride.
At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Malaysia made a pledge to preserve 50% of its forests. Lee informed me that currently, we're above that with 55%, and that there are many non-governmental organisations which have recognised the good effort that Malaysia has made in preserving its forests while still sustaining a bustling agricultural industry.
As for productivity and sustainability, Lee explains that this is actually a non-issue.
“One statistic is very simple. If you talk about having a limited amount of available land while the population is increasing, where is the food going to come from? The productivity of palm oil is six to 10 times higher than any other vegetable oil. Compared to soybean oil, we are eight times more productive per unit of land.
“Palm oil is from a tree crop. Once you plant it, it lasts for 25 to 30 years. Soybean and all the rest are annual crops. You have to plant and re-till the land every year. So, just by simple logic, you can imagine which is more environmentally damaging. Annually you till the land and cause erosion, and fertiliser needs to be reapplied.
“And oil palms are quite big trees. If you look at the foliage, they absorb carbon dioxide. It may not be equivalent to forest trees, but certainly better than tiny soybean plants.”
As for the by-products, Lee says that they are used productively in various ways, such as fuel to produce electricity and also to make paper, fibreboards, etc.
The MPOC has been working hard to change the unfair perception that some people have about palm oil, before finding out for themselves. Lee says that in the United States especially, palm oil has actually been very readily accepted, in some markets, as a healthy alternative to soybean oil.
“Baked goods and confectionary products use fats that need to be a bit more solid. Soybean oil is a soft oil and it needs to be hydrogenated to make it more solid, and during that process, it produces trans fats.
“Palm oil is naturally semi-hard, so we don't need to hydrogenate it and that makes it very suitable in bakeries.” Trans fats have been identified to be highly unhealthy, as they have been found to raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, and lower good cholesterol (HDL) levels. Some states in the United States have even taken to imposing a ban on trans fats.
“There's the argument that palm oil contains a higher percentage of saturated fats than soybean oil. But recent studies show that there are several kinds of saturated fats. It's not the same as in butter, animal fats, etc. It's a different fat composition and it does not raise the LDL. In fact, it has a beneficial effect of raising the HDL.
“So actually, it's beneficial to health. Palm oil is similar in health attributes to olive oil,” he asserts.
Lee adds that for even healthier benefits, we should look at red palm oil. “It's a specialty oil. It's not so common in Malaysia, but has been exported to the United States and Europe for domestic use. The red hue comes from beta-carotene, and another very important component is tocotrienol a high-grade variant of Vitamin E.”
Red palm oil has in recent years been garnering popularity, as people are supplementing their diet with it to boost good overall health. In addition, there are focused studies (breast and prostate cancers) underway to evaluate the possible cancer-combating qualities of red palm oil.
Lee divulges that the MPOC has been financing several documentaries promoting healthy diets, which have aired on the Asian Food Network (AFC), CNBC and BBC. He says many people do not realise that the MPOC is involved in the production of these programmes. The MPOC wants to take a more active stance in bringing awareness of palm oil and its uses to consumers.
“When we produce the documentaries, I normally advocate that we should project our Malaysian palm oil. Some people have said that we wouldn't be taken seriously and would be seen as biased. But I think what is important is the content, then the prejudice should quickly disappear. That's why with the upcoming cooking show I have suggested, it's been agreed that we would project Malaysian palm oil and even the MPOC.
“The programme will be promoted and produced by us. Martin Yan from the United States will be the chef on the show, and the theme will be cooking using palm oil. It will be broadcast on the Asian Food Channel,” he says, with a hint of excitement.