A Distortion Of Facts By Palm Oil Critics
by Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron
This article appeared in the Malaysian New Straits Times Saturday Forum column dated May 27, 2006
A top level team of experts was assembled by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) in London last week for a symposium on Sustainability Resource Development. This was in response to strongly worded statements appearing in the London media from NGOs who had tried to associate palm oil with the habitat loss of orang utan, in view of the expansion of palm oil production in recent years.
When statistics on the percentage of Malaysian land devoted to forestry, agriculture and oil palm were revealed and compared with the equivalent status for agriculture in Britain, it was a big eye opener for the audience. The facts showed the accusations on non-sustainability and loss of forest cover do not apply to Malaysian palm oil at all. On the contrary, the converse turned out to be more accurate.
Malaysia devotes six million of its 33 million hectares of land area to agriculture, of which two-thirds or four million hectares are under oil palm cultivation. Yet the four million hectares of oil palm produce twice as much oxygen as generated than the whole by the 17 million hectares of agricultural crops in Britain. This underscores the superiority of oil palm in generating oxygen for the benefit of the world.
Another major contribution to the world is the ability of the four million hectares of oil palm to absorb twice the amount of carbon dioxide produced with 17 million hectares of agricultural crops in Britain. It should also be pointed out that carbon dioxide levels are at their upper limits of acceptability in the Western hemisphere due to the use of more fossil fuel.
Britain has little forest left, as most land has been converted to agriculture. Such a paucity of forest cover and the preponderance of agricultural land have resulted in reduced biodiversity and caused the loss of fauna and flora.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Britain has less than 12 per cent of its land under forest cover compared with 64 per cent for Malaysia. Agricultural land makes up 71 per cent of its total land area compared with less than 19 per cent in Malaysia of which oil palm accounts for two-thirds
In 2004, Britain received €4.06 billion (RM18.8 billion) in agricultural subsidy to support its agriculture sector, which earned €24.72 billion. This produced an earning of € 1,448 per hectare, of which €238 was the subsidy component, leaving a net revenue of € 1,210 per hectare per year. Compared to this, the Malaysian palm oil industry which is not subsidized, earns €6.53 billion per year or € 1,687 per hectare of revenue which exceeded the British agricultural unit earnings.
If purchasing power parity is applied to the revenue, the Malaysian palm oil industry is far superior in terms of the sustainability indicators, when compared to British agriculture. Without the subsidy, the European Union agriculture would be totally unsustainable. With the subsidy, it contributes to environmental damage due to the over-use of fertilisers, pesticides, and the inexorable destruction and removal of forests.
The sustainability of the Malaysian palm oil industry is therefore obvious, and it can be safely claimed that Malaysian oil palm cultivation is comparatively superior to any large-scale agriculture in the tropics or the temperate countries in terms of sustainability parameters.
The plantation industry is professionally managed, with many operating as listed corporations on the Malaysian stock market where corporate governance and corporate responsibility is better practiced than farm activities in other parts of the world.
Why did the NGOs try to portray palm oil negatively by urging consumers to avoid palm oil products which come from unsustainable sources? How can they accuse or imply that Malaysian palm oil is not sustainable?
Judging by the unsustainable performance of the British and EU agriculture, it would be more logical for them to ask their consumers to boycott their own farm produce as their sustainability is far below that of Malaysian palm oil.
The NGOs are also calling for plantations to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil which has yet to establish their certification procedures. The RSPO is a novel idea, supported by the Malaysian palm oil industry but its implementation should be further researched for consensus between the participating suppliers and buyers. Palm oil from Malaysia should mostly qualify as sustainable.
A call for the boycott of unsustainable palm oil is not only premature but would be difficult to implement, as there is no official certification for unsustainable or sustainable palm oil. Equally, there is, at present, no sustainable oilseed products from the EU. The question should, therefore, be raised as to why a boycott of such EU products is not called for?
Calling for participation of palm oil producers in a non-existing sustainability scheme is discriminatory, which has led to unnecessary collateral damage to the image of palm oil. For Malaysian palm oil, which is highly sustainable within the current acceptable parameters of sustainability, this is a grave injustice. Such moves are a major disservice to the efforts of the producers who have been observing good agricultural practices for many decades.
The Symposium in London serves to alert the NGOs that they have no basis for singling out palm oil when their very own agriculture has failed to achieve the required standards of sustainability. If forest conservation for environment sustainability is truly the required intention, one can campaign for agricultural land to be reverted to forest.
In Britain, agriculture is the most appropriate target for reversion as large tracts of land are planted with rapeseed intended for conversion to biofuel. The energy balance for rapeseed biofuel is negative, meaning that they spend more energy to generate one unit of biofuel energy besides contributing to more carbon dioxide emission.
It should be ideal for the EU or Britain to follow the standard set by Malaysia in having more than 64 per cent of their land under forest cover by converting agricultural land into forest for generating conditions of higher conservation and biodiversity.
The anti-palm oil hysteria by NGOs is mainly a distortion of real facts or good practices long adopted here.