It is well known that palm oil has faced significant problems in Europe, including negative public opinion influenced by negative labelling of food products. What is less well known is that such negative influences are creeping into Malaysian life as well.
Visitors to Malaysian shops can now see the undermining of palm oil on our own supermarket shelves, and even in local markets.
It is the responsibility of all of us to hold to account those companies that are undermining our national interest in this way and deliberately undermining palm oil which is a key pillar of the Malaysian economy.
We must remember why this is necessary. Palm oil is one of Malaysia’s great national successes – and our largest single export.
Millions of our fellow citizens rely on this miracle crop, for their families’ livelihoods. Our rural areas have been transformed beyond recognition into oases of prosperity.
For the sector to continue to succeed, it’s important that future generations of Malaysians do not fall prey to the negativity and fake news that has been directed at palm oil.
An ongoing example is the proliferation of “No Palm Oil” advertising or labelling on food – often accompanied, for example, by the deliberate promotion of competing oils.
Such denigratory advertising has had a negative effect on palm oil in Europe – and could do so in Malaysia, unless we act quickly.
First, we must focus on education. The new generation of Malaysians should be provided with the data and facts about the benefits of palm oil, to ensure they have the knowledge and understanding to reject the naysayers.
This is the responsibility of all of us – government, industry, media, parents, and so on. Through working together and sharing the burden of educating our young, we can ensure that respect and reverence for the benefits of palm oil are passed on down the generations.
For example, I recently met with a group of researchers from the United States who have been developing a drug to fight Alzheimer’s disease and the main component of the drug is palm kernel oil.
However, education on its own may not suffice. The labels that can be found in Malaysian supermarkets, or online, are an unacceptable put-down of one of our most-important industries.
We must look closely at what proactive steps can be taken, whether in the form of consumer actions to send a message to the companies involved; or government action to address the root of the issue.
The Danish brand Lurpak is a prominent example. The product contains a stick-on label on the back of the container and when peeled back, says – Contains no palm oil.
Lurpak’s parent company is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), whose rules include a commitment from members not to besmirch or undermine sustainable palm oil production. Lurpak’s packaging is a clear attempt to undermine and criticise Malaysian palm oil, and to openly promote alternative oils.
This is not the first time that an RSPO member company has taken such anti-Palm Oil action. The French supermarket, Casino, has been using ‘No Palm Oil’ labels for years whilst remaining an RSPO member. RSPO’s responses are clearly inadequate and ineffective: the companies such as Lurpak continue to denigrate palm oil – even here in Malaysia.
These companies may argue that the ‘No Palm Oil’ labels are not an illegal activity; that their product formulations are a matter for them alone; that they are technically not in breach of RSPO rules.
Such technical argumentation does not excuse their actions. These companies are using RSPO as a shield to hide behind, to allow them to continue their anti-palm oil campaigns. If RSPO is serious about defending palm oil, then this shield must be taken away. It is time to take action.
My ministry looks beyond simply the technical question of the labels.
Companies such as Lurpak make a free choice to enter the Malaysian market: they ask for the trust of Malaysians. This means they have a wider responsibility.
They must ensure that their actions are within the correct spirit, not just the technical letter of the rules. There is an ethical responsibility, alongside the legal one.
When over one million Malaysians rely on palm oil for their livelihoods, is it really ethically defensible for a company operating in Malaysia to denigrate palm oil?
My answer is no.
Of course, the vast majority of these companies are welcome: they provide products and services that we Malaysians want and need.
Most are law-abiding and respectful. We must be clear though, just as we welcome and praise the majority who act correctly, we should clearly condemn those who seek to undermine Malaysia.
The Government has been clear that we will defend the rights of the palm oil small farmers against discrimination from abroad.
The Prime Minister has stated that we will take retaliatory measures against countries that discriminate against palm oil and palm oil-based products.
We must be just as watchful at home, as we are abroad. Unfair or illegal discrimination by foreign companies operating within our border cannot be condoned.
To the companies who have chosen to denigrate palm oil: my advice is simple, stop doing so and work with us in addressing your concerns in a sincere manner.
Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong
Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities, Malaysia