A draft of the revised EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) is making its way through the legislative process in Brussels. The proposals present a huge issue for Malaysia, specifically for its palm oil exports. This is because the European Parliament intends to ban palm oil biofuels from 2021 – last year, its Environment Committee and the Industry, Research and Energy Committee had respectively voted for the ban.

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The palm oil industry faces a series of interconnected threats in Europe. These stem from fears about the alleged environmental and social impact of oil palm plantations, as well as from lobbying designed to champion the interests of oilseed competitors.

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The speed at which news moves around the world today has opened the floodgates to a flurry of questionable information that deliberately misleads and misinforms. ‘Fake news’ can undermine companies, and even whole economic sectors, if there is no strategy to combat its spread.

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How will President Emmanuel Macron’s government handle the populist debate around science and regulation in France? The early signs are encouraging – Macron has criticised US President Donald Trump for his stance on climate change, and has encouraged scientific researchers to come to France.

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In an interesting study by UCLA professor Alan Castle and his colleagues, only one person out of more than 100 students could accurately draw the Apple logo from memory. According to Prof Castell, the most famous experiment on this subject showed that few people could correctly recall the placement of the features on a penny coin – which way Lincoln is facing or where the word ‘Liberty’ goes. This was likely due to information overload or ‘attentional saturation’.

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Last year, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) issued a report that warned of consequences for human health from contaminants created during the processing and refining of edible oils. The findings have since been widely circulated.

It is clear that oils derived from all sources – soybean, olive, rapeseed, corn, sunflower and oil palm – are affected. However, the EFSA report also acknowledges that the palm oil industry has taken voluntary measures to reduce the process contaminants.

Interestingly, too, laboratory experiments by German group Stiftung Warentest have found that products without palm oil are more likely to contain harmful elements and contaminants, compared to those containing palm oil.

Stiftung Warentest notes: ‘Nocciolata (palm oil-free spread) on the other hand, with sunflower oil and cocoa butter, performs well in sensory tests; but harmful substances make it the loser of the test. The reason for Nocciolata’s low rating is critical substances in its fats: 3-MCPD-Ester and glycidyl-ester. These can occur during the refinement of edible oils.’

Health concerns are a main driver of change in the food industry. According to Bloomberg, companies worldwide had curbed the use of ingredients such as sugar and salt, in about one-fifth of products last year. Coca-Cola has 200 reformulations in the works to lower the sugar content of its products.

Indeed, the slowdown in sugar consumption has become a turning point for that industry, which had seen near-linear growth for half a century due to rising demand from expansion of the world population.

Trust in the Malaysian Palm Oil Brand

At the beginning of April, the European Parliament voted in favour of a ‘Resolution on Palm Oil and Deforestation of Rainforests’. This proposes to set up a single certification scheme by 2020, to guarantee that only sustainably produced palm oil enters the EU market. It will also require food labels to state that the palm oil used has been sustainably produced or for this information to be accessible through technological features.

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French President Francois Hollande visited Malaysia at the end of March to discuss trade and expand France’s presence in Southeast Asia. His visit came at a time when France-Malaysia relations are at a fork in the road.

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During the 2016 US presidential election, the term ‘fake news’ gained popularity. In essence, the discourse centred on news articles, especially those frequently shared on popular social media websites, that arguably provided biased or even false information regarding the candidates, and may have even contributed to determining voters’ choices.

However, the concept of ‘fake news’ is not new to the palm oil industry which is regularly confronted by articles that use incomplete or manipulated data; which are regularly supported by competitors to distort trade; and which create fear among consumers against consuming palm oil.

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Campaigns against palm oil have evolved over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the US soybean lobby campaigned against it on purported health grounds. Since 2000, the campaign has shifted to alleged environmental concerns, largely supported by the rapeseed and sunflower industries in Europe and led by radical Green NGOs. In recent years, this has taken on a new and more comprehensive approach. Its clear objective is to make palm oil ‘socially unacceptable’. This new approach has been aggressive.

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