Quashing palm oil fallacies with a full-on campaign

People’s choice: Mother and daughter perusing the food label for information on the ingredients. The MPOC campaign on palm oil in France and Belgium is to educate consumers on the benefits of the commodity, to combat preconceived ideas about it, and to help consumers make informed choices about products containing palm oil.

Palm oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world. A key product for responding to the needs of the world food-processing industry, it accounts for 35% of the world vegetable oil market.

In Malaysia, the development of sustainable palm oil is a major source of employment, and has constantly contributed towards the eradication of poverty.

Despite its benefits however, public perceptions about palm oil, particularly in parts of Europe, have not always been positive. Due to years of negative campaigning by certain NGOs and groups, palm oil has been unfairly blamed for a host of problems, with myths persisting about its supposed impact on nutrition, health, the environment, economies, and sustainable development in Asia and Africa.

To counter these fallacies, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) launched an information campaign in France and Belgium on Sept 7. Themed They say everything and anything at all about Malaysian palm oil, the campaign aims to combat preconceived ideas about palm oil, while inviting the public to form their own opinions about the crop.

“Palm oil is an excellent product and food manufacturers are aware of this. Unfortunately, wrong information is passed on to consumers and this has affected its image. Today, perception is the new reality, and we must take this seriously,” says MPOC CEO Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron.

This is the first time that MPOC is launching such an information campaign in Europe. According to Dr Yusof, his organisation decided to start the campaign in France and Belgium, due to the need to tackle the myths where they are strongest.

“Palm oil has suffered from an image problem in France and Belgium for a number of years, due to negative and disparaging campaigns. France is a very important market in Europe, because the country is seen as a leader in both issues of food and health, and also of the environment,” says Dr Yusof.

“Where France leads, many other countries in Europe often follow, so it is very important for MPOC to be present there, and active. So continued engagement in Europe – where the opposition is strongest – is very important.”

Campaign components

The campaign has several integrated components. The first is a press, poster and digital campaign in France and Belgium. These feature five amusing and colourful illustrations, which examine and challenge a number of widespread myths about palm oil.

“The most important myths relate to health and the environment. Oil palm is not grown in France, so it is difficult for French consumers to identify with it,” says Dr Yusof.

“There is the myth out there in France that palm oil contains trans fats, which is completely untrue. We are explaining and educating that, in fact, palm oil helps to replace dangerous trans fats. It has been proven by many experts and scientists that palm oil is not harmful to health.”

Dr Yusof said it is also important they debunk the myth that there are no more forests left in Malaysia due to over-development of palm oil. This, he says, is not true, as the Malaysian Government has committed to keeping 50% of land as permanent forest areas, a fact recognised by the United Nations.

Another part of the MPOC campaign involves an educational website (malaysianpalmoil.info) which offers informative content, as well as a quiz to win a study trip to Malaysia.

The website hosts a mini-web-doc, which follows the adventures of three students and young professionals who went around Malaysia to meet local palm oil stakeholders. It comprises six sequences focusing on production, animals, food, forests, health and social issues.

Owls are welcome in oil palm plantations as they prey on pests such as rats and snakes. - Filepic
Owls are welcome in oil palm plantations as they prey on pests such as rats and snakes, so homes are erected for them. - Filepic

A rhinoceros beetle. Photo: The Star/Grace Chen
A rhinoceros beetle. Photo: The Star/Grace Chen

Dr Yusof says the online campaign and website have a focus on the youth demographic in France and Belgium, as they are most often exposed to negative campaigning by NGOs on social media.

“There will also be advertising and other educational activities directed at all key consumers,” he says. The campaign would also include a platform to relay information to the French and Belgian media.

Best practices

United Plantations Bhd vice-chairman and chief executive director Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen says that the Malaysian palm oil industry has developed best practices on environmental and biological standards, and “many Malaysian companies are world leaders at implementing them today”. Among the measures are:

“Pest control: we practise integrated pest management. For example, building houses for barn owls to live on the plantations. The owls are natural predators for rats and help to keep rat population at ‘checkmate’.

“Pheromone traps: instead of spraying insecticide, the use of natural pheromones is widely adopted as a biological control against harmful rhinoceros beetles.

“Then there is the planting of beneficial flowering plants that attract good insects, just like what French wine farmers do with roses in their vineyards – that help to contain the leaf-eating pests and therefore the need to use pesticides.

“In this context, it is a fact today that most Malaysian plantation companies’ use of pesticides is about 40-45 times lower per tonne of oil produced compared to soy bean farmers and six to eight times less per tonne of oil produced compared to rapeseed farmers.”

Bek-Nielsen also highlights that palm oil from Malaysia is 100% GMO-free, a fact that is “perhaps not well-known in Europe”.

All about facts

Dr Yusof explains that MPOC works closely with scientists and other experts in Europe to determine key facts to educate and inform consumers in France.

“The campaign is based on strong research that MPOC has conducted, and also our understanding of the French market. The proposed ‘Nutella Tax’ was successfully defeated in 2012, for example, which showed us that our educational approach can be successful,” he says, referring to a previous proposal by the French Government for increased taxes on palm, coconut and palm kernel oil products such as the Nutella chocolate spread.

“We are simply educating people, by communicating the facts and working with experts. The facts are on our side, that is clear.”

Dr Yusof acknowledges that given sentiments in Europe, it would take some time to alter perceptions about palm oil there. Nevertheless, he and his organisation are optimistic that changes would eventually come.

“There have been many years of campaigns in France against palm oil. So we should not think that we can overturn all of these myths immediately. It will take time, but we are making good progress,” Dr Yusof says.

For more information on MPOC’s campaign in Europe, visit malaysianpalmoil.info.

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