No such thing as sustainable palm oil? Yes, there is – in Malaysia


  • Letters
  • Saturday, 12 Sep 2020

A worker collecting harvested palm oil fruit bunches using a bullock cart in Johor, Malaysia, in June 2020. The palm oil industry secures jobs for over five million people globally, mostly smallholder farmers. — Bloomberg

Last week (Sept 5, 2020), Italian scientist Roberto Gatti made headlines in Malaysia when he proclaimed that there is “no such thing as sustainable palm oil”. The only problem is that Mr Gatti is wrong.

Oil palm producers have for the last 15 years become the lightning rod for the public’s growing anger on issues relating to deforestation, global warming, subpar labour practices, and transboundary haze. Only a silent few have questioned these allegations, leading the vast majority of the public to swallow these headlines hook, line, and sinker and leaving the narrative unchallenged.

It is as if the endless supply of information in today’s modern era, through quick and easy forms of digital content, has reached a point of overload. Sadly, it has worn us down and induced a premature form of mental fatigue, taking away our ability to distinguish between credible research and catchy click bait, and ultimately what is right and wrong, and whether we should even question it.

The palm oil industry is a vital agricultural player today, globally. While it only occupies less than 0.5% of the total area under agriculture today, it accounts for 37% of all the oils and fats produced in the world and continues, in spite of the Covid-19 calamity, to secure jobs for well over five million people globally, most of whom are smallholder farmers who depend on this crop for their livelihood.

Is everything perfect and rosy? Absolutely not. The oil palm – like all agricultural crops – requires one thing: land. And this is where the dilemma arises. In this context, we must acknowledge that the oil palm has contributed towards large tracks of deforestation, even though over the last 25 years it has accounted for less than 5% of global deforestation.

Boycotting palm oil and replacing it with an alternate vegetable oil is, of course, a decision that people or big brands are free to make. However, the price for such an action will be high, as it is proven beyond doubt that replacing palm oil with any alternate vegetable oil will result in using up to 10 times more land to produce the same quantity of oil.

Even the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wide Fund for Nature have recognised this, urging for and supporting the production and use of sustainable palm oil to prevent greater impacts on the environment, biodiversity and communities.

The problem with studies like Mr Gatti’s is that they single out the oil palm without putting things in perspective and informing the reader that commodities such as beef, soy, maize, poultry, timber production and more account for over 90% of the world’s deforestation today, and are still in their infancy when it comes to providing consumers with a supply chain that does not come from recently deforested land.

Palm oil, however, has such a scheme in place today, assuring buyers of no deforestation, no new peat land development, and no exploitation of workers. The scheme is called the Principles and Criteria and is set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It is a standard that I can state with supreme confidence goes beyond any similar sustainability standard in the world today, including oils from olive production in Spain, rapeseed production in France, soy production in the United States or canola production in Australia.

The palm oil sector is far from perfect and I will be the first to state that there is still a long road ahead in terms of making sustainable palm oil the norm, but the first steps were taken over 15 years ago to create a multistakeholder platform, where buyers and consumers could be assured that the palm oil in the products they use and consume has indeed been sourced sustainably.

The aspirations remain high, and today we see the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification schemes, providing an amazing platform to raise the floor of the “many” instead of just focusing on raising the ceiling of the “few”.

Together, we will drive the RSPO, MSPO and ISPO standards forward regardless of spurious claims by people like Mr Gatti, and hopefully take inspiration from the words of wisdom from the late Chinese philosopher, Confucius: “It is better to light a candle than to curse darkness”. Sustainable palm oil is the “light” – it is the future – and any efforts to squash this movement will only move us back into darkness, where we will lose our way, remain silent, and fail to speak up when half-baked truths grab headlines.

In the end, this is about taking ownership and holding fast – especially when the headwinds are the fiercest. It is about appreciating that sustainability is a shared problem, requiring individual changes that must start today. This includes you.

DATUK CARL BEK-NIELSEN

Chief executive director, United Plantations Bhd and co-chair of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

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