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’.

Now, how many of us have looked at the Malaysian currency and realised that oil palm tree is prominently displayed at the back of the 50-Ringgit bank note?

Bank notes are an important medium of transaction. They have also come to symbolise a nation’s identity, as notes or coins may carry designs associated closely with its history and culture. The country’s name is automatically linked to the currency, be it the US Dollar, British Pound Sterling, Japanese Yen, European Euro or the Malaysian Ringgit (RM).

The oil palm tree is reflected on the RM50 bank note in recognition of the strategic importance of the industry in driving the Malaysian economy. The 16 million tonnes of palm oil exported in 2016 represented 37% of the global palm oil trade.

The most recent genesis of the RM50 bank note stems from the 50th year of Malaysia’s Independence. In December 2007, Bank Negara Malaysia launched the fourth series of this bank note, featuring the oil palm tree (along with biotechnology) as an icon. The design is based on the National Mission – the first thrust aims to move the economy up the value chain to higher value-added activities in agriculture, manufacturing and the services sector.

Conversation piece
The RM50 bank note is the perfect tool to explain the importance and value of the miracle that is Malaysian palm oil. On my travels, I have observed that many people do not know what palm oil is derived from. This is to be expected because the oil palm is not planted in many parts of the world. Those in Europe, for example, are more familiar with rapeseed, sunflower or the olive tree.

We are unable to transport an oil palm tree across borders to show what its looks like. But I have often wondered why the RM50 bank note has not been used as a promotional tool to educate people about the oil palm and its main product, palm oil. After all, Malaysians usually carry Ringgit notes in addition to other currencies when travelling.

Some years ago, when I attended a hearing on a palm oil-related Bill in the Australian Parliament, a Senator mentioned never having seen an oil palm tree. And yet, Australia was planning to make an important decision that would affect palm oil.

I then realised how important it is to always carry a RM50 note with me. Although there are other options, such as a photo of the oil palm tree, I can confidently say that the bank note will always make a more interesting conversation piece.

It could earn you a couple more friends, although you may end up losing RM50 as the bank note is sometimes claimed as a souvenir item! But the loss is small when you can remove misconceptions about the oil palm industry. And unlike printed materials used for education and promotion, a bank note will not be dumped in a bin, since people are aware of its monetary value.

The depiction of an oil palm tree on the RM50 bank note makes it an unusual and meaningful gift item, as it promotes Malaysia, its currency and the oil palm industry all at once.

Belvinder Sron,
Deputy CEO, MPOC

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?