A conference reveals that Malaysia is constantly seeking to improve the sustainability of its palm oil industry.
It is the world’s most consumed and used vegetable oil, yet it has come under more intense scrutiny and has been criticised more than any other type of oils and fats. What is it about palm oil that draws such flak?
At the 4th International Palm Oil Sustainability Conference held recently in Kota Kinabalu, participants and speakers attempted to sort through the sometimes emotional reactions this agricultural product elicits with an exchange of differences and misgivings, shared perspectives and clarifications.
In his opening address at the conference, Malaysian Palm Oil Council chairman Datuk Lee Yeow Chor said that Malaysia is at the forefront of sustainable palm oil production.
Malaysia has attempted to address repeated criticisms – particularly from international NGOs – about everything from environmental degradation to labour issues in the palm oil industry by rallying local growers to comply with international standards such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and International Sustainability & Carbon Certification.
This is on top of local regulation imposed by many Malaysian laws, such as those for housing, pesticide use, and waste management.
“We are constantly seeking to increase our sustainability performance and good agricultural practices, and improve the industry.
“In fact, palm oil is the first and the only vegetable oil with a globalised sustainability certification, and our players are proactive in meeting requirements laid out in the standards.
“For an industry to have been around for the last 50 years is testament to its sustainability. The road ahead is not going to be easy but I believe we can achieve more milestones,” Lee said.
Lee said palm oil remains an affordable food commodity, supplying about 30% of the world’s oils and fats production while its two nearest competitors, soybean and rapeseed oils, supply about 23% and 13% respectively.
(According to a 2013 paper by Oil World, an independent forecasting body, other oils include sun oil at 7.3%, coconut and palm kernel oils at 5.1% and others, including animal fat, at 22.6%.)
Lee feels that palm oil’s increasingly commanding position and high yield contribution is one reason it has been targeted extensively, and sometimes unfairly, in negative media reports and policy-making sessions.
He added that some of the biggest critics of the palm oil industry chose not to attend the conference despite being invited.
Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron also pointed out that compared to the criticism levelled against developing countries, there isn’t such widespread condemnation of deforestation in developed countries.
“Take Sarawak, for instance. It has so much undeveloped land – 80% of its forests are still undeveloped – while the UK has only 11% of its forests left, so for them, there’s no issue of deforestation.
“But what are we supposed to develop for the future if not forested land?”
There are no guidelines for what percentage of a country’s land should remain forested and untouched or how much agriculture land a country can develop, Yusof pointed out during his presentation at the conference.
He also shared some figures: According to reports from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (in 2011) and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (in 2012), as well as information from Oil World, oil palm uses just 0.29% of 4.911 billion hectares of agricultural land worldwide, an insignificant amount compared to the main driver of global deforestation, the livestock industry, at 71.27%.
“There are also other crop species and oil seeds that account for 23.17% and 5.25% of utilised lands, higher than oil palm, yet it seems like palm oil has been made the scapegoat, levelled with harsh criticism.”
Malaysia currently produces 45.3% of all the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil-certified palm oil in the world market. However, Yusof pointed out, problems arise when palm oil is subjected to two different emissions-saving values, one defined by Europe and the other by the United States – and these values are not scientifically proven anyway, he claims.
“While our industry accepted the RSPO requirements with open arms, the real problem started when different standards were imposed.
“Even the World Wildlife Fund has said that Malaysian palm oil is the most sustainable-certified commodity being exported,” said Yusof.
Futhermore, he added, “We are almost a net sink for many developed countries, as emissions are absorbed through our oil palm and rubber plantations and forests. Right now, our nett carbon emission is estimated to be at 15 million tonnes a year compared with the United States, which emits about 6 billion tonnes annually.
“At the same time, we have over 200 mills looking into methane gas removal, which will supply electricity to the national grid by 2020. Most greenhouse gas emissions happen at the mills, thus lowering them will improve palm oil’s sustainability,” said Yusof.
(As of March this year, biogas facilities at 63 mills have alread been completed, facilities at 14 more mills are under construction and there are plans for biogas plants at a further 150 mills.)
A fund for wildlife
Illustrating the Malaysian palm oil industry’s contribution towards biodiversity is the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, which was launched in 2006 with a RM10mil grant from the Federal Government and another RM10mil from the industry, to support environment and biodiversity conservation efforts.
A spokesperson for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) explained at the conference that the fund is used to document conservation studies and responsible cultivation of palm oil.
The fund was established at a time when the palm oil industry was facing a barrage of negative campaigns, when misinformation was being spread by authoritative figures using wrong numbers.
“There has to be correct information without emotional connections. Like the fact that there are over 11,000 orang utans in 16 forested areas in Sabah – yes, that is a reduced number compared with 20 years ago, however, the population has been stable since 2005,” the spokesperson pointed out.
In Sarawak, there are about 2,000 orang utans, and a census conducted in 2012/13 found the Ulu Sungai Menyang area to contain the highest numbers.
The fund is currently assisting the Sarawak Forestry Corporation with conservation efforts at three national parks – Ulu Sebuyau, Sedilu, and Maludam – and the proposed Gunung Lesung park.
A Wildlife Rescue Unit had also been formed, outfitted with two dozen rangers as part of the capacity-building process in Sabah Wildlife Department.
Despite the reportedly healthy orang utan population numbers, though, a concern was raised by Sabah Wildlife Department assistant director Dr Senthilvel Nathan.
It seems that a disturbing behavioural pattern has emerged among some of these orang utans: they have become more terrestrial than arboreal now.
This could mean that the orang utans are at more risk from predators like the clouded leopard – that can attack juvenile orang utans – or coming into contact with soil-borne diseases and pathogens that they don’t have any resistance to, said Nathan.
“Just recently in Lahad Datu, at an oil palm plantation where crops were being replanted, we were surprised to find four orang-utans that have been living within the plantation for the last 10 to 15 years.
“There are a few things to realistically look into right now. Among them, to address issues of land use practices and forest management, to secure larger corridors and riparian reserves, and to stop further fragmentation and new conversion of forests.”
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