Much of the media debate surrounding palm oil in recent months has focused on the EU Parliament’s proposed ban on palm oil biofuels, as part of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
This focus is understandable – RED represents an imminent threat, that must be opposed forcefully and Malaysia is leading the opposition to the proposed ban.
The most recent negotiations in Brussels took place at the end of March as part of the ongoing EU Trilogue – palm oil was not discussed at length.
However, the palm oil ban will be in focus when the negotiators next meet, currently scheduled for April 26.
These coming few months are crucial for Malaysia’s palm biodiesel exports to Europe.
This article, however, is not about RED. Even in the midst of such a critical period, Malaysia has a responsibility to keep its focus on the wider picture of the palm oil debate not just in Europe, but globally. Our approach must be strategic, and long-term.
We cannot only focus on what is today’s threat, in order to wear the mantle of thought-leadership, we need to look further ahead to what may be the challenges in future.
The better we can think and understand our future challenges, the better chance we have to mitigate and defeat those challenges.
This does not only mean thought-leadership in relation to challenges. There are many of those coming over the horizon – from the EU’s new approach to addressing deforestation, to the debate over mutual recognition of certification schemes, and many more.
We must also be brave and set forth a positive, proactive strategic direction for the future, based on positive messages about Malaysia and its overall conduct of the palm oil industry. A starting point should be an ambition to position Malaysia as a global leader in agriculture – in technology, innovation, and development throughout the palm oil supply chain.
Several existing and ongoing examples spring to mind.
Mapping the oil palm genome is a giant leap – it is beneficial in and of itself, in that it enhances scientific understanding.
More importantly, it will have practical consequences benefiting the environment, rural development, and economic growth.
We must think of this achievement not in academic terms, but in how we position Malaysia as a global leader in agriculture, particularly oil palm. The use of methane capture technology is another major step forward.
Ninety-two methane capture facilities have already been completed; over 150 more are in the planning or construction stage.
The Malaysian Government and industry are working on this together.
This approach will at once reduce carbon emissions, improve profitability through the alternative use of biogas, and help ensure future market access for Malaysian Palm Oil, as Greenhouse Gas emission standards around the world become stricter. If this sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. It is simply the fruit of technological innovation, government support, and industry pro-activeness.
The focus on yield enhancement through advanced breeding and tissue culture propagation (as opposed to landbank expansion) is a world-leading effort from Malaysia to prove that sustainability and economic development do not have to be in opposition, rather, they are bedfellows.
The seeds for this success have already been sown. At every opportunity we must remind the world, and especially our critics in Europe, of this far-sighted approach.
Similarly, the development of Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification Scheme is far more significant at a global level than perhaps many in the industry or, in Malaysia, appreciate.
MSPO is not merely a new, or locally-driven, standard.
It is at the forefront of driving forth an approach to palm oil sustainability based not on whimsical or arbitrary criteria conceived in the backroom of an NGO headquarters, but on internationally-recognised standard-setting methods such as those used by the International Standards Organisation and United Nations Development Programme.
Now we must accelerate communicating our vision, to the world.
We must understand that communicating in Europe, and other Western markets, is different – they do not have the same intimate knowledge about palm oil as Malaysians.
And there are already some ingrained prejudice or misguided idealism planted in the minds of these western world consumers.
So, we must be more direct, using simpler, clearer messages that frame Malaysia in a positive way. Academic messages don’t resonate – they are not sharp or simple enough for the public and media discourse.
We are talking about the sweet spot for a successful palm oil strategy internationally; long-term thinking, positive messages and simple communication.
An additional factor can be added as well, re-assessing our audiences. We have been very successful with trade audiences, moving conversations away from negative Green NGO talking points onto issues of trade and economics.
France, Spain, and other EU governments support Malaysia in the European RED debate, precisely because of this strategy.
A critical part of our strategic thinking is how to expand this success to reach other sympathetic audiences in European capital cities – the pro-development and community advancement groups, for example. Another opportunity is the pro-innovation and investment audiences in Europe, who are interested in agricultural progress and innovation.
We must be realistic that some – if not most – of the environmental/sustainability community will not defend palm oil,therefore, let us spend our time and money more wisely. That means working with our current friends, and finding new friends to outnumber our critics. We must raise our eyes to the horizon and aspire to lead the agenda of debate, globally.
Datuk Lee Yeow Chor
Malaysian Palm Oil Council