Education needed to change minds about palm oil

The prospect for palm oil in the European market seems bright despite the many challenges faced by the commodity.

An illustration of thermometers with varying readings beside flags of several European countries appears on the screen midway through a presentation by Marta Zuluaga Zibermann.

If anything, the images presented during her talk at the recent Malaysian Palm Oil Trade Fair and Seminar are apt representations. After all, the debate regarding palm oil has

been a particularly “heated” one, especially in Europe.

The EU requirement to label the botanical origin of vegetable oils and fats starting Dec 13 is aimed at raising consumer transparency and understanding of what is in a product. — Bernama

But the causes of dissent towards the commodity are, more often that not, propelled by emotional disposition as opposed to informed knowledge, says Zibermann who is based in Brussels, Belgium.

The policy and government relations officer from Cargill is speaking at a ballroom in Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur that is populated by palm oil industry specialists. Based in Minnesota, the multinational corporation is involved in the purchase and distribution process of agricultural commodities. The company has also been an active promoter of the sustainable usage of palm oil, according to Zibermann.

But when she introduces the title of her talk that afternoon, one can’t help but stifle a groan. “Today, I was asked to speak about palm oil in the European Union (EU) market, of the issues and challenges that we are facing today,” she begins earnestly.

The topic is, of course, no fault of hers. On the contrary, it’s a rather insightful lecture on the scenario revolving around palm oil that is currently taking place in the continent. However, when Zibermann outlines the palm oil issues and challenges that currently percolate through the European landscape, it does seem like an all too familiar “he-says-she-says” situation.

Low awareness

“There seems to be little awareness by the average consumers on the realities of palm oil right now. And when coupled with negative media coverage and complaints from NGOs, this leads to a very negative perception on palm oil,” she offers. “There’s also the aspects on sustainability and nutrition which are taking place at the EU level. And when policies and debates happen at the EU, they do get replicated at the national level as well. Obviously, the health and nutrition agenda is affecting food while the sustainability agenda is affecting food and feed as well as energy, which is biofuel.”

The experience of the European Palm Oil Alliance shows that consumers will have a more balanced position on palm oil once they understand that it is possible to produce the commodity in a sustainable manner. — Filepic

On the EU’s health and nutrition agenda front, Zibermann emphasises on the requirement to label the botanical origin of vegetable oils and fats from Dec 13.

“This is an interesting development because as of that date, you will have to indicate on the product whether it’s rapeseed oil, sunflower oil or palm oil that’s being used. This is increasing the transparency and understanding of what is included in a product,” she explains.

The other points highlighted by Zibermann include EU’s push for better understanding towards environmental impacts of products and renewed scrutiny on how the continent’s consumption patterns affect deforestation in Third World nations. She says all these policy developments will inadvertently have an impact on palm oil.

According to Zibermann, the countries with the highest influence in propagating the adversity of palm oil are France, Belgium and Norway. And that brings us to that portentous image with the flags and thermometers that indicates the intensity of debate on palm oil. The illustration – which was provided by the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA) – shows that the focus on sustainability takes great prominence in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands. But in Belgium and France, the debate on health triumphs.

EPOA programme manager Margot Logman – in a separate workshop held at the event – says the alliance is addressing the debate on palm oil-related health concerns. It’s goal is to create a balanced and objective view on health and nutritional aspects of palm oil.

“We do this by providing science-based information, rebalancing the discussion around health and nutritional facts about palm oil and communicating on industry commitments,” Logman offers.

However, the nutritionist by training admits that the issues of sustainability and health are linked.

Cargill policy and government relations officer Marta Zuluaga Zibermann presented an insightful talk on the issues faced by palm oil in the EU. — Photo from Malaysian Palm Oil Council

“If you look at our consumer research, most people don’t know what palm oil is. They don’t know where it comes from or how it’s produced. When you mention palm oil, they think, ‘Oh, you cut the tree, crush it, throw away the tree and you get the oil.’ That seems to be the impression right now,” she says.

“We also see that if you tell the consumers that it’s possible to get sustainable and certified palm oil, they then bring up matters about it being unhealthy. In that sense, both sustainability and health are related and you have to address them both,” Logman adds.

But for all the misconception and lobby against palm oil in Europe, Zibermann stresses that it continues to be a growing market in the continent.

The statistics for palm oil in Europe are surely encouraging. But in the age of Facebook where virality, instead of numbers, matters, the prospect of the commodity ultimately depends on how consumers perceive it. It’s something that Logman understands all too well.

“In social media, people tend to repeat what other people are saying without digging in deeper. And here is where EPOA comes in. We’re trying to make people understand what the palm oil story is really about,” she says.

Logman relates an incident at this year’s Salon International de l’Agriculture consumer conference in Paris, where EPOA encouraged some 20,000 people who showed up at its booth to taste and understand palm oil products.

“We did a research and almost everyone who came to our booth were converted to a more balanced position on palm oil. Of course, it’s only 20,000 people in a big country, but it’s a start.”

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