Why Palm Oil Does Not Deserve Its Bad Press

Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry is under sustained attack in the
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

poor.

Following

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.

In

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.

With mandatory

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.

It’s

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

standards.

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.

But

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.

And

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.

When

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

industries.

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.

Protecting

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.

Anti-palm

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.

But any

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

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