A RECENT European Union (EU) plan proposing to restrict palm oil in its biofuel programme has once again put the palm oil industry into public scrutiny, requiring palm oil producers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable production.
A statement by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the United Nations’ 73rd General Assembly last year reinforced Malaysia’s full commitment to the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification, underscoring the importance of shifting towards sustainable palm oil consumption and production.
Palm oil is regarded as one of the most controversial agricultural commodities. It continues to be associated with negative impacts such as loss of wildlife with deforestation commonly featured in anti-palm oil campaigns alongside images of the orang utan. Threats to the livelihoods of indigenous communities, child labour and health risks associated with haze are often brought up to further state the case against it.
The release of the 2017 EU Palm Oil and Deforestation report that assessed the health and environmental impact of the palm oil industry further underscores the EU’s efforts to limit palm oil in biofuels, adding further to the non-tariff barriers on palm oil.
Palm oil producing countries have sought to reassure consumers and markets through informational campaigns, including Malaysia’s “Love My Palm Oil” campaign, which aims to raise consumer awareness and counter messaging from anti-palm oil lobbyists.
However, focusing on marketing tactics can backfire. For example, a recent World Health Organisation bulletin claimed that poverty alleviation arguments against anti-palm oil campaigns are not dissimilar to strategies used by tobacco and alcohol industries in “influencing” global policy. Additionally, targeting domestic consumers may not be impactful as the current challenge lies with the international market. Deeper analysis is needed to support national commitment towards sustainable palm oil consumption and production.
Malaysia views oil palm as a golden crop, instrumental to its economy to uplift the wellbeing of the 650,000 oil palm smallholders.
Responsibly sourced oil palm biomass remains a key renewable energy source, vital for long-term decarbonisation of the sector.
Over 23 per cent of the 5.8 million hectares of Malaysian oil palm plantations are MSPO certified, reflecting the commitment to sustainable palm oil.
FIRST , beyond marketing propositions, achieving sustainable production requires the palm oil industry to embrace a genuine commitment to international commitments and declarations, particularly the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, 2015 Paris Agreement and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Aligning national planning with international conventions is the first step towards achieving overall sustainability in palm oil.
The EU adopts a similar strategy following its resolution to phase out unsustainable raw materials, ending illegal logging and deforestation.
SECOND , is to further strengthen ecological integrity in MSPO certification. One critique of the MSPO is its failure is to halt conversion of peatland to oil palm plantation.
If Malaysia is serious in penetrating the European market and its stricter requirements, regulation of certified sustainable palm oil and committing to zero deforestation must be the top priorities.
Efforts to combat deforestation should focus on preserving existing peatland; satellite images show an explosive rate of peatland to palm oil conversion, at 27.4 per cent.
Malaysia should work towards peatland restoration and halt, and even decrease, palm oil peatland utilisation. Additionally, efforts must include external third party audits to improve complaints’ systems especially on land rights compensation.
Depending purely on internal auditing may be perceived by consumers as a weak form of assessment and governance.
THIRD , better scientific assessment of greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions and carbon sequestration of land use change is needed. According to a WWF assessment comparing MSPO performance against RSPO, MSPO received only a medium score, with improvements needed in standards relating to pollution, waste and ghg emissions, and agricultural good practices.
Setting up a science-based working group to limit ghg emissions will result in better climate mitigation measures and reduce overdependence on auditing and certificates.
Finally, greater cooperation between relevant stakeholders, including government, local producers and buyers, is required to improve palm oil production traceability. According to Cargill, the biggest palm oil buyer, providing mills with technical support including mapping middlemen networks, improving supply chain records and offering incentives for supply-chain actors to provide information improves palm oil traceability.
About 96 per cent of Cargill’s supply is traceable to mills and 55 per cent to plantations. Establishing traceability of oil palm provides producers with better data to understand supply chains, improve reporting and implement sustainable production processes.
Greater collaboration is also needed between major producers and importers to proactively address pertinent issues. The establishment of a joint EU-Asean working group is timely to harness open, fair and non-discriminatory conduct in international trade.
Similarly, Malaysia and China are collaborating to improve traceability of palm oil products by establishing guidelines for palm oil as a green food; in China, products with the green food label are recognised as safe, hygienic and environmentally friendly.
Banning palm oil is unlikely to be the answer to ending deforestation. Investing resources towards building capacity for sustainable palm oil practices and processes represents an opportunity for Malaysia to lead the way in sustainable palm oil production.
Opinion Column by Ainun Jaabi. She is a researcher at the Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia