West. TIM WILSON says the consequences of a consumer boycott are
poverty for smallholders and more environmental damage as producers
switch to alternative lower-yielding crops
RECENT campaigns against palm oil show non-governmental organisations
are more interested in pandering to rich country donors than promoting
sustainable economic and environmental development for Southeast Asia’s
attacks from palm oil industry interests in November last year, the
chief executive of NatureAlert, Sean Whyte, claimed “Non-governmental
organisations don’t want to see it (the palm oil industry) closed down
and neither are they seeking a boycott of palm oil”, but to see it
prosper without doing “damage to the environment”.
In making such claims, however, Whyte clearly cannot see the oil palm from the plantation.
Australia and New Zealand, NGOs have convinced celebrities, television
stations and taxpayer-funded zoos to campaign for government regulation
requiring manufactured food products to label palm oil ingredients
separately from vegetable oils.
Their objective of mandatory
labelling is to encourage consumers to choose products that don’t
contain palm oil and effectively introduce a consumer boycott.
The NGO campaign has had some success, with Australian Senator Nick
Xenophon recently announcing he would introduce legislation directing
the bi-national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zea-land, to
require compulsory separate palm oil labelling.
palm oil labelling in force, supported by consumer boycotts, food
manufacturers will be faced with the business reality of either losing
sales or switching to other oils in manufacturing to keep customers.
a decision confectionery manufacturing giant Cadbury made last year
after NGOs identified they were using palm oil in their chocolate
products and encouraged a consumer boycott, leading Cadbury to dump
palm oil as an ingredient.
In Europe, NGOs have gone one step
further and successfully lobbied to introduce Europe-wide regulations
blocking palm oil biofuel imports unless they meet strict emission
In developed countries, NGO campaigns often prey on
the ignorance of well-intentioned donors who aren’t confronted with the
consequences of NGO policies on out-of-sight and, therefore,
out-of-mind rural workers.
NGOs then add images of “cute” orang
utans whose habitats are claimed to be lost to palm oil-caused
deforestation, to encourage donors to open their wallets.
garnering donor sympathy to fight the palm oil industry comes at the
expense of the exports and livelihoods of the more than 40 per cent of
Malaysia and Indonesia’s smallholder oil palm growers who rely on the
crop for their incomes.
In total, at least two million Malaysian
and Indonesian workers depend on the palm oil industry for their
livelihoods, including from the large plantation communities that make
up a majority of the planted oil oil palm, who don’t just provide
salaries for workers but also heavily, or wholly, subsidised
healthcare, housing and education services.
Attacks on the
industry also ignore the clear benefits of palm oil. At a side-event at
the United Nations Copenhagen climate change conference, critics
attacked palm oil because, like many other comestibles, it may
contribute to the contraction of diabetes.
But palm oil is also a rich source of vitamin A and, according
to the United Nations Children’s Fund, each year a million infant
deaths are caused by vitamin A deficiencies.
But there’s no choice between accepting one million preventable
infant deaths and allowing the consumption of palm oil that may lead to
the contraction of a manageable chronic disease later in life.
the crop is also substantially more sustainable in comparison with
other oils because oil palm yields at least five times the same tonnage
per hectare as equivalent seeds. As a consequence, oil palm needs less
land and less resources to produce more.
The irony of the
attacks on the oil is that if activists were successful in blackballing
its use in food manufacturing, producers would have to switch to
alternative lower-yielding crops to maintain their livelihoods. The
consequence would be that they would require more land and more
resources to produce less.
Palm oil isn’t perfect and it is
responsible for some deforestation caused by rogue growers. But the
benefits of palm oil far outweigh the costs.
NGOs may think that
eliminating consumer demand may remove the environmental consequences
caused by the industry, but attacking the root of environmental
degradation won’t be solved by attacking palm oil.
Around the world, the key driver of environmental degradation is rarely a single industry, but poverty.
urban and rural communities are poor, their best escape option is
through the exploitation of primary natural resources that promote
economic growth and drive the development of manufacturing and service
Without the development of these industries,
communities will always be trapped in subsistence living, where the
environment will always come second to families finding ways to stay
alive and secure food and shelter, especially in rural areas.
the environment only becomes a priority when societies prosper and can
afford environmental protection regulation and the resources to
sustainably manage and conserve their natural assets.
oil NGOs like NatureAlert, Greenpeace, Wetlands International and
Friends of the Earth may think demonising palm oil will help Malaysia
and Indonesia improve their environmental health.
short-term environmental improvements will be traded off against the
livelihoods of the rural poor, who would be better able to protect
their environment when they have economically developed and can afford
to do so.
The writer is director of the Sustainable Development Project at the Institute of Public Affairs based in Melbourne, Australia
Source : New Straits Times