Tackle palm oil issue head-on

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 20 Nov 2018

BY now, most people in the palm oil supply chain would have watched Iceland’s Christmas advertisement which was “banned” by Clearcast, the advertising industry advisory body for the United Kingdom, for being political in nature.

The video portrayed the escape of an orang utan into a little girl’s bedroom, allegedly due to the destruction of its rainforest habitat.

Clearcast has since clarified that it does not have the authority to ban the advertisement as it is not a regulatory body and that it is the responsibility of the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).

Be that as it may, what is clear is that Iceland, by recycling a video produced by Greenpeace, an organisation that’s undoubtedly political in nature, knew its attempt to advertise would be prohibited and intended to leverage such prohibition to create a viral effect. To date, the video has garnered more than 15 million views, spun millions more impressions from the resultant news articles and drawn almost one million signatories to an online petition for the “ban” to be overturned.

Its bad faith can be discerned from the fact that it merely booked £500,000 of media space on TV, surely an amount too insignificant for a major retailer with over 800 stores across the UK. It has now also unleashed life-sized animatronic orang utans supposedly “in search of a new home” on Britain’s streets and some Iceland stores.

Any marketer will say that this is a cunning, clever and thinly disguised campaign calculated to get maximum bang for the buck through negative public relations, notwithstanding Iceland’s vigorous denial.

As the world’s second largest producer of palm oil, what are we doing about this?

It is fantastic that Piers Morgan, Good Morning Britain’s anchor, called Iceland’s bluff and its managing director a hypocrite for still selling other non-house label products containing palm oil. But are we just going to stay on the sideline and do nothing?

It is a well-known fact that banning palm oil and its products will only lead to greater deforestation. In 2013, James Fry, a leading palm oil expert, conducted a cost and benefit analysis and reported that had a moratorium been imposed on oil palm cultivation then, it would have led to an incremental deforestation of 145 million hectares to plant other oil crops to make up for that loss of production.

Worse, livestock rearing is the chief culprit while soy cultivation causes forest loss at almost double the rate for oil palm cultivation. Comparatively, livestock, soy and oil palm cause forest loss of 3.83, 0.48 and 0.27 million hectares per year respectively between 2001 and 2010, according to Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) data.

However, banking on superior productivity alone is grossly inadequate to counter the richly funded and systematic heart-and-mind campaigns that anti-palm oil lobbies such as Iceland initiate. Our sustainability action must be made clear to the world and our corresponding communications must be strong and consistent.

In this respect, the government must seriously consider making zero deforestation and zero peat planting a national policy. No ifs and no buts because the consumers can be easily influenced otherwise. At the 16th instalment of the annual Roundtable Conference on Sustainable Palm Oil (RT16) by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), proposals to that effect have been adopted. Working towards this bold but unavoidable national policy will drive the stake through the heart of the deforestation propaganda perpetuated by anti-palm oil lobbies.

In return for the producers adopting higher standards, major users of palm oil must also reciprocate by putting the money where the mouth is. To date, RSPO has certified a total of 19% of palm oil produced worldwide. However, less than half of the production has been bought and even then, at little to no premium. Anything less would simply be hypocrisy of the highest order by the buyers.

Smallholders, who account for about 40% of total production, must be given appropriate financial and technical support to take the sustainability path. Efforts to certify smallholders’ production under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme must be prioritised and any excuse that the current weak prices would delay its mandatory implementation must be banished. In the same regard, the proposed new standard exclusively for this cohort to reduce unnecessary burdens towards RSPO certification must be lauded and supported.

Meanwhile, the Primary Industries Ministry and relevant bodies such as the MPOC and Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) need to be proactive in countering the anti-palm oil onslaught. Adequate resources must be put behind a planned and holistic advocacy and communications programme that engages governments, non-government organisations, oil and fats users and the end consumers to create mutual understanding and benefits.

Simply put, the days of knee-jerk and ad hoc reactions to attacks are over. We must tackle the anti-palm oil lobbies head-on and consistently. Not doing so will be an abdication of duty to the industry in general and our 650,000 smallholders whose livelihood depends on our golden crop.


Executive vice president and partner

PEMANDU Associates

Kuala Lumpur

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