The bid to make Malaysian palm oil sustainable goes on amid attacks that crop up over the years.
THE palm oil industry was a cornerstone in reducing the poverty rate in Malaysia from 50% in the 1960s, down to less than 5% today.
The success of the industry, however, did not come without a price.
“Today, we are so successful but we went through so many challenges. Because of the success of our palm oil, countries that produce other vegetable oils attacked us,” said Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong.
“Because we are so competitive, that’s why they are always targeting palm oil,” he said.
Mah said oil palm is the most efficient oilseed crop in the world and it is able to produce up to 10 times more oil than leading oilseed crops such as soybean, rapeseed and sunflower.
In the 1980s, the palm oil industry first came under fire when a campaign was initiated linking tropical oils to increased risk of heart diseases.
“The Government intensified research on the claims and found that it was untrue and palm oil is highly nutritious,” said Mah.
In fact, he explained, the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, a division of the prestigious British Medical Journal, declared in its editorial dated March 31 that saturated fat does not clog arteries.
Palm oil contains 50% saturated fats.
“We have been fighting them for so long. I’m happy that it has been proven that saturated fats do not create poor heart health,” said Mah.
The palm oil industry today is still largely linked to land grabs, deforestation and the extinction of the orang utan.
Oil palm operations in Malaysia are not spared from being pigeon-holed in the same category.
“Now, they’re attacking us on deforestation and they say we burn the trees and kill orang utans.
“But every year, the amount of forests cut down to rear cows for meat is 10 times more than that for oil palm,” he said.
Contrary to the claims, Mah said 56% of the land area in the country is under forest cover and there are an estimated 11,200 orang utans in Sabah and another 2,500 in Sarawak.
A recent resolution by the European Parliament called for the EU to phase out – by 2020 – the use of vegetable oils in biodiesel that are allegedly produced in an unsustainable way, leading to deforestation.
The resolution includes palm oil and might affect the exports of palm oil to Europe and other developed countries.
Calling it the “latest attack on palm oil”, Mah said the resolution is discriminatory.
“They want to have a European certificate for all the palm oil that goes into Europe but they don’t have similar standards for other oils,” said Mah.
The proof that Malaysia is serious about sustainability lies in the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification which will be made mandatory in 2019.
It is aimed at taking the industry to a higher level of sustainability and transparency throughout the entire supply chain by requiring all groups of producers to meet a broad range of standards.
“Malaysia cares about the environment as much as the Europeans do. European regulations which cannot be applied here should not be imposed as they are impractical and too expensive,” said Mah.
Mah said the Europeans needed to be convinced that the MSPO is an all-inclusive certification that would safeguard the environment and palm oil quality.
“I will show them that we are working very hard and they should accept our standard, not set one that is totally unachievable,” he said.
EU is the biggest importer of palm oil from Malaysia. In 2016, more than RM10bil worth of palm oil and its products were exported to the region.
Armed with an iron resolve, Mah will be travelling to Europe with Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs, Darmin Nasution, in June, in a bid to curb the resolution.
“I’m confident that my explanations will be received well. We’ve faced many challenges before,” he said.
Last year, the French government wanted to raise taxes on Malaysian palm oil. The tax hike would have raised the tax on palm oil to 209.7% compared to the present 21.67%.
“But we managed to lobby and this proposal was defeated in the French parliament,” added Mah.