Food Fight

Taking on the French anti-palm oil campaign orchestrated by parties out to protect the European vegetable oil industry.

LAST month I had the good fortune to visit France and discuss our palm oil industry with policymakers, businesses and consumers. This trip was particularly important since France has been the focal point of a relentless campaign of misinformation launched against our products, our workers and the Malaysian people.

The attacks allege that palm oil is unhealthy for consumers and claim that palm oil production harms the global environment. Both of these claims are false and were recycled from the US anti-palm oil campaign which proved to have no scientific justification. The French campaign is at best 20 years outdated.

The French campaign introduces a new paradox besides the well known existing one where the French have a lower heart disease rate even though they consume higher amounts of saturated fats. The new paradox now is the unjustified campaign of misinformation on palm oil in France.

The French have been involved in the development of the oil palm sector. For example, the first oil palm plantation in Malaysia was established in 1917 by a Frenchman by the name of Henri Fauconier at the Tenamaran Estate in Selangor, which now belongs to Sime Darby Plantations. Historical records document Fauconier as a respected personality.

France, through its renowned research organisation, the Centre for Agriculture Research and Development (CIRAD), has also been involved in conducting oil palm research and the provision of agronomic advisory services to many palm oil producers in South-East Asia, Africa and South America.

But these are a reminder of the need for our industry to embrace an aggressive, widespread and sustained communications, and lobbying strategy to educate the public and policymakers around the world.

<b>Friendly party:</b> A French chef in action at his restaurant in Hotel Crillon, Paris, in this filepic. While there is a campaign in France attacking palm oil as being unhealthy, there are among the French themselves advocates of palm oil. The Institute Économique Molinari released a report stating that palm oil has a positive impact on cardiovascular health even greater than olive oil.” src=”http://starstorage.blob.core.windows.net/archives/2012/10/11/lifefocus/f_pg11crillon.jpg” width=400 height=319></div>
<p><span style=Friendly party: A French chef in action at his restaurant in Hotel Crillon, Paris, in this filepic. While there is a campaign in France attacking palm oil as being unhealthy, there are among the French themselves advocates of palm oil. The Institute Économique Molinari released a report stating that palm oil has a positive impact on cardiovascular health even greater than olive oil.

False claims

The false claims against us are advanced by environmental groups with close ties to the European vegetable oil industry, and to government policymakers hoping to protect French farmers from competition.

Both the European rapeseed and sunflower industries have sought to direct attention away from their products. They do not want consumers to see that their products, which were long the source of trans fats, are less healthy than palm oil, which has no trans fats; or that their environmental footprint is much greater than oil palm since they yield less oil per hectare.

This fact was confirmed in recent research that was published in European journals from German scientist Dr Gernot Pehnelt on the carbon value of rapeseed. And so they support campaigns to distract the public by making false accusations about our products.

And the attacks have had an effect. For example, Systeme U, a French retailers’ cooperative, and Groupe Casino, the French retailing behemoth, have been running aggressive multimedia campaigns against the use of palm oil in the products they stock on their shelves.

French support

The good news, as I discovered on my visit, is that we are not alone. French experts on economic development and the global oils industry noted that mischaracterisations of palm oil reflect a global campaign by environmental activists and competing industries with little resemblance to the facts on the ground.

Alain Rival, a palm oil expert with CIRAD, noted that “palm oil remains the most profitable agriculture crop for small farmers.”

We also found several parties in French civil society who were supportive of competition, open global trade and consumer choice.

For example, the Institute Économique Molinari, a French public policy research organisation, released a report analysing and debunking the claims being made against the industry.

“(No) other source of vegetable oil than palm oil can actually spare more land and deliver more accessible, abundant and affordable calories to people worldwide,” the authors said.

The authors further noted that contrary to the claims of uninformed activists, palm oil has a positive impact on cardiovascular health even greater than olive oil.

And we also learned we are not alone in expressing concern with the tone of the discussion in France. During our visit, Côte d’Ivoire’s Association of Palm Oil Producers (AIPH) was in Paris for a hearing at the Paris Tribunal de Commerce. The hearing was related to the anti-palm oil campaign undertaken by Systeme U. AIPH vigorously defended the global palm oil industry from the baseless charges levelled against it.

Certified oil

While I never enjoy seeing my industry attacked, the visit to France left me optimistic that we can make progress in our relations with the European market. During the visit, I called for French companies to actually buy the certified palm oil they publicly claim they want. The palm sector has worked mightily to commit to producing certified oil, and as such, the supply of certified oil has increased by a factor of 12.

But while there is ample supply, there has been a curious lack of demand. The same companies that initially insisted they could only purchase certified oil are not purchasing available supply, without any explanation. We must continue to engage the French market, and the broader European market, to make purchasers understand their concerns are being met and there is ample supply of certified oil. This will take patience and an ongoing communications and public relations effort to bear fruit.

At the same time, the call for purchasing certified palm oil should not preclude purchasing from small farmers. Small farmers account for 39% of land under cultivation in Malaysia, and an even larger share outside of the country. Small farmers are the least able to meet the costly auditing required to achieve certification. But this does not mean they are any less sustainable than large corporate producers.

Since 2002, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board has been developing a certification system specifically designed for small farmers called the MPOB Good Agriculture Practices (GAP). Its standards and principles, such as integrated pest management and improved agriculture practices, are already being widely adopted throughout the sector. The certification system ensures compliance with high standards of production, and encourages practices that will increase yields and efficiency.

But here, too, I see room for progress in the French market. Carrefour, another large French retailer with locations throughout the world, has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to sourcing from small farmers. There is no reason Carrefour should not source from Malaysian small farmers who are among the most productive in the world. I encourage Systeme U and Groupe Casino to do the same.

Working together

The palm oil industry must continue to communicate these important messages and extend the achievements made from our recent visit to France. As one of the leading food producers for the world, the French market is important to the future of our industry. To that end, Malaysia and France are now establishing a working group to continue this discussion, and bring science and objectivity to the French debate.

At the same time, the palm oil industry must also demonstrate to competitors that their support of baseless attacks against our products and our hard working people will not go unanswered.

We are proud of our work and proud to be the most productive oil producer in the world, and we will defend our right to sell our excellent products in the global marketplace.

Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron is CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. For more information or comments, e-mail: yusof@mpoc.org.my.

Source :The Star

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