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.

Even Britain’s Prince Harry has been drawn into the debate, remarking that products containing palm oil should carry a label “like cigarettes”, as a form of health warning. His comments, reported in the UK’s Sunday Express newspaper (Dec 4, 2016), were made during a visit to the Iwokrama International Centre in the Guyana rainforest.

His misinformed proposal is reminiscent of radical tactics that attempt to shut down or restrict products to which campaigners raise objections for various reasons. Palm oil has been in their sights, but they have a new playbook.

The first part of the campaign is well underway. That is the push to make palm oil consumption more visible – an easy-to-see target in food products, as has happened in many countries. There has been considerable pressure to have palm oil specifically labelled in Europe. Lobbying by NGOs is now focused on extending this to the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Once palm oil is identified by consumers through labelling, the second and more insidious part of the campaign takes off. This pushes for products to be ‘free of palm oil’. The outcome can already be seen in the proliferation of the ‘No palm oil’ label affixed to products by food manufacturers across Europe.

Use of the label, though, is clearly illegal. There are rules governing the use of negative claims in food labelling in the EU and Australia. There needs to be justifiable cause as to why something is labelled ‘free’ of a particular ingredient. In most cases this is for health reasons, as in the case of dairy or soybean products; these are known sources of allergens. The label should not be applied to palm oil, as it is not an allergen.

The real goal is to poison the minds of consumers. When enough products indicate and advertise that they do not contain a specific product, consumers are led to believe that these are ‘socially unacceptable’ to consume.

Tenuous claims

The arguments used by anti-palm oil campaigners remain weak. First, the case on health grounds has been tested over a 30-year period. New evidence has closed it comprehensively from a scientific perspective. The NGOs, however, do not care for science.

Second, there is the environmental case, with the justification for avoiding palm oil taking on many guises. This has gone through the wildlife conservation case; the climate change case; the tropical peatlands case; and more recently, the forest fires and haze case.

In all these cases, the claims have been rebutted with evidence. But what they lack in evidence, the campaigners will make up with persistence. They know that if a message is repeated often enough, people will simply accept it.

Third – and this is the newest part of the campaign – is the attempt to make a social case against palm oil. The most recent attacks have been based on allegations of child labour, human rights abuses and land rights infringements.

This last part of the campaign is particularly dangerous, and has mainly been projected to a US audience. It must be urgently dealt with if palm oil is to avoid this narrative becoming as ingrained in the minds of end-users, as is the environmental narrative in Europe.

In most cases, no distinction is made in relation to the source of palm oil – whether by company or country, and whether sustainably produced or not. The target is the commodity itself.

And as is often the case in western markets, people do not necessarily need legitimate reasons to think something is unacceptable. If they are convinced by consistent NGO and media claims that a product is socially or morally unacceptable, they will ignore scientific evidence and legal rulings.

Tobacco, of course, is the ultimate socially unacceptable product. Prince Harry’s comments were not an accident. The comparison with tobacco is the dream of palm oil’s opponents. This is how they would like palm oil to be treated – taxed, restricted, ostracised.

The weak arguments against palm oil have not changed. Neither has the determination of opponents. What has changed is that there is now a concerted plan using all methods available to send palm oil down the same well-trodden path to social banishment as products like tobacco. The palm oil industry must act fast to avoid this fate.



NGOs and campaign groups almost never admit that the oil palm industry is in the right as far as deforestation claims are concerned. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – a US-based campaign group – has bucked the trend.

In a blog-post on Dec 14, 2016, (see Ending Tropical Deforestation) it pointed out that oil palm cultivation is not the environmental bogeyman that NGOs have made it out to be. Why? Because it is not a major contributor to global deforestation.

What changed the UCS stance is a 2016 report by Climate Focus, written for signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests. In particular, it looked at the Declaration’s ‘Goal 2’ – to support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soybean, paper and beef products by no later than 2020, recognising that many companies have even more ambitious targets.

The study found that agricultural commodities such as beef, soybean and maize have a significantly higher deforestation footprint than the oil palm. In the case of beef, it is about 10 times more. The analysis also examined data from the European Commission (EC), which has previously looked at the deforestation footprints of the commodities.

The study pointed out that oil palm companies have made significantly bigger commitments to zero deforestation than any other commodity group, despite being a much lower contributor.

The UCS mea culpa has larger implications for environmental campaigning. As the blog-post states in part:

‘In working to change the world, there’s always a need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re focusing on what’s most important. This certainly applies to the effort to end tropical deforestation, which is why I [scientific adviser Doug Boucher] and my UCS colleagues have put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what causes – and in particular, which businesses – are the main drivers of deforestation.

Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that that global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community – and that definitely includes me – may have had our priorities wrong too.’

The issue for the broader campaigning community is whether they will now cease their absurd attacks on the oil palm industry and if they will apologise for erroneous claims.

Damage done

A bigger question, though, involves the funding that continues to be associated with such NGO campaigns.

The Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of US-based foundations, has funded myriad activities against palm oil. A look at its Global Grants list indicates that it has spent more than US$13 million across 38 such projects – including US$3 million to Greenpeace.

Compare this with its spending on five activities involving soybean (US$2.5 million) and several on beef (US$759,000). The beef projects were not even exclusive activities; these also looked at different commodities.

Greenpeace is in the middle of utilising a US$1 million grant directed at palm oil, as is the Rainforest Action Network. Friends of the Earth is working through a US$400,000 grant. It’s no wonder the campaigning against palm oil and the subsequent commitments have been skewed: there was simply more money thrown at it.

Another factor is that there is no substitute for beef. And since the world’s largest beef producers are the US and the EU, negative campaigns are simply not politically tenable.

In the EU, palm oil can be substituted with competing domestic products such as sunflower and rapeseed oils. As such, generating an environmental case against the oil palm – which is really only grown in two countries that are not major trading partners – is a no-brainer.

This is not the first time that environmentalists have declared war on a particular industry and got the underlying facts wrong.

During the 1990s and most of the 2000s, campaigners concentrated heavily on the timber industry. There was an assumption that demand for wood was leading to global forest loss. This resulted in campaigns against paper products and raised an entire industry of consultants working on illegal logging policy. But it was not timber demand that was the problem: it was the need to grow food.

But there is little disadvantage for NGOs if they are proved wrong. Greenpeace claimed for a long time that tropical deforestation was responsible for about 25% of global carbon emissions. The estimate is now much closer to 10%. Greenpeace would no doubt justify this by saying it had brought attention to the issue.

In the case of palm oil, though, erroneous information has harmed the commodity’s reputation and affected the livelihood of some three million small farmers who grow oil palm. While they are surely the ones who could do with an apology, will this be enough to repair the damage done?



In working to change the world, there’s always a need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re focusing on what’s most important. This certainly applies to the effort to end tropical deforestation, which is why I and my UCS colleagues have put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what causes – and in particular, which businesses are the main drivers of – deforestation.

Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that the global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community – and that definitely includes me – may have had our priorities wrong too.

The study, by Climate Focus and many collaborators, is part of an assessment of the impact of the New York Declaration on Forests two years ago. That Declaration, launched at the September 2014 Climate Summit that also featured a march of 400,000 people through the streets of New York, highlighted commitments by hundreds of companies, governments, NGOs, Indigenous Peoples’ groups and others to work towards a rapid end to deforestation.


The September 2014 Climate March through the streets of New York, with yours truly on the left, helping to carry the UCS banner. The New York Declaration on Forests was launch a few days later.    

The Climate Focus report looked in particular at the Declaration’s ‘Goal 2’: ‘Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soybean, paper and beef products by no later than 2020, recognising that many companies have even more ambitious targets.’

In evaluating progress toward achieving Goal 2 by 2020, Climate Focus looked at the most recent data showing the main drivers of deforestation. Figure 1 gives these results, from two different data analyses (on the left, from Henders et al, 2015; on the right, from the European Commission 2013).

The main commodities driving deforestation, from the analysis of Climate Focus based on two different data sources.
Source: Climate Focus 2016.  

The data is pretty clear: by far the biggest driver of deforestation is beef. Soybean is second, but far behind in terms of importance. And palm oil and wood products are even smaller drivers, causing only about a tenth as much deforestation as beef.

Every year since 2012, France’s Socialist Party politicians – often supported by the government – have attempted to bring in a tax on palm oil products. The most recent move was defeated in July 2016, thanks to a robust response by producer countries.

However, the lawmakers have since announced two plans of action. They want to re-examine taxation on all vegetable oils; and to draw up sustainability criteria for the production of vegetable oils and other commodities.

The second proposal will be led by the newly-established Sustainability Criteria Commission. It will be of particular interest to palm oil producers, who have been down a similar path before.

When the European Union (EU) introduced the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) about seven years ago, sustainability criteria were included to ensure that the biofuels in use had been produced based on ‘environmental’ standards – even though these were clearly prone to politicisation and protectionism.

The RED scheme was a boon for biofuel producers, both in Europe and elsewhere. However, better-value imports (notably palm oil) claimed a substantial share of this new market. European producers then looked for strategies to keep out imported biofuels.

They came up with multiple methods to fix the sustainability criteria in ways that disadvantaged palm oil:

  • ‘Default values’ were set for estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) savings, although these evidently favoured domestic oils.


  • Producers worked with protectionist politicians to remove palm oil products from approved lists.


  • They also supported the introduction of Indirect Land-use Change criteria. This was a complex way of exaggerating the emissions count of biofuels, based on numbers that were arbitrary and unprovable. In the end, the EU rejected the plan as being simply unworkable.

Inherent weaknesses

The RED precedent has taken on fresh relevance today because of the French proposal to impose new sustainability criteria for vegetable oils that will allow the same protectionist, anti-palm oil traps to be set.

The criteria are expected to cover more than just GHG emissions savings. These are likely to encompass forest conversion, biodiversity, land use, social and political concerns, farming and conservation methods, supply chain traceability and economic factors.

It is generally understood that the more vague the terms of reference, the more politicised the outcome will be. On this basis, it is worth noting that the terms of reference for the Sustainability Criteria Commission appear to be non-existent.

The Commission’s membership is also puzzling. Its members have impressive credentials in terms of administration and politics, and long careers in related fields such as agriculture and environmental policy.

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI Committee) published its Draft Report on ‘Palm Oil and Deforestation of Rainforests’ on Nov 3, 2016. It was prepared by the rapporteur and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Kateřina Konečná.

At the same time, reports on the felling of protected EU forests to assist production of biofuels showcased the clearly two-faced approach by and within the economic bloc, and the need for palm oil producer countries to bring about a more balanced debate on the issue.

The ENVI Committee had held a Public Hearing on ‘Palm Oil and Rainforests: What can the EU do to stop deforestation?’ on March 17, 2016. The aim was to exchange views on the ‘environmental impact’ of the palm oil industry. However, the tone of several statements was clearly against palm oil; consequently, producers were cast in a negative light.

MEP Konečná’s Draft Report contains a motion for a European Parliament Resolution and an explanatory statement on the issue. Such reports often lead to legislative proposals and are an important tool of the European Parliament to influence the legislative agenda and the surrounding public debate. More importantly, they aim at influencing the work of the European Commission (EC).

The European Parliament’s final resolution could lead to repercussions related to trade in palm oil, and may influence the debate on the EU’s regulatory approach to biofuels and sustainability.

During a debate on the Draft Report on Nov 28, 2016, MEPs from a number of political groups took the floor. Several times, the ‘balanced and measured’ nature of the Draft Report was highlighted, which can only be characterised as a clear overstatement of the current text.

References to the ‘reckless cultivation of [oil] palm’; calls for an increase in the applicable import duties; and advocating a ban on palm oil as a component of biodiesel do not appear to be ‘balanced and measured’ statements leading to an equitable resolution by the European Parliament.

In its draft opinion on the Draft Report, the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development underlined again the nature of palm oil as a ‘driver of deforestation’. The Committee on International Trade called for a ban on imports of biodiesel derived from palm oil and even argued that the EU-Indonesia negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) should not cover palm oil.

Two US universities launched an unprovoked attack on the palm oil industry in September, peddling erroneous mortality statistics attributed to the haze event of 2015 in parts of Southeast Asia.

Since then, Greenpeace has used these figures to spread misplaced health-related fears, including at the European Palm Oil Conference in Warsaw, Poland, from Oct 5-6.

The study, a collaboration between Harvard and Columbia universities, attempted to quantify the number of deaths from the 2015 haze event. It claimed that 91,600 premature deaths in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore were linked to this.

Immediately rejecting the claim, Malaysia’s Deputy Director-General of Health, Datuk Dr S Jeyaindran, said: “No such thing! We had no deaths last year directly related to the haze.”

The results were similarly rebuffed by the governments of Indonesia and Singapore.

Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency said the research “could be baseless or they have the wrong information”. Singapore’s Ministry of Health said the study was “not reflective of the actual situation”.

Let’s establish this from the start: there is zero doubt that haze events have an impact on public health. That is clear and inarguable. And there is zero doubt that, if the level of haze is reduced, there will be a reduction in these health impacts.

However, advancing good management of land-clearing fires or public health was not on the mind of the researchers. Rather, their goal was to advance an agenda that appeases their rich New York City donor class, at the expense of 300,000 hard-working Malaysian small farmers, among others in the oil palm industry. This must count as western greed and alarmism at its worst.