A controversial Greenpeace film about the ‘plight’ of the orang utan in Indonesia and Malaysia completely ignores the reality on the ground and is actually counter-productive.

I HATE to have to say this but James Corden and Bill Bailey have allowed themselves to be duped by an unholy combination of NGOs and naïve retailers.

I’m referring, of course, to the controversy over a recent film made by Greenpeace to highlight the continuing plight of the orang utan in Indonesia and Malaysia, if land is cleared for new oil palm development.

It’s now getting a huge amount of airtime, as Greenpeace offered the use of the film to British supermarket chain Iceland for its Christmas advert.

Greenpeace has a strong relationship with Iceland, the only UK retailer which has committed to phasing out the use of palm oil in all its own products by the end of the year, on the grounds that its CEO Richard Walker doesn’t know how to tell the difference between certified sustainable palm oil and uncertified palm oil.

(By the way, it’s not difficult, Richard. You just have to pay slightly more for the certified oil than for the uncertified oil – but then your customers wouldn’t like that, would they? And it would be really good if you made sure that the 500 tonnes a month you need were certified as sustainable, not least because a lot of certified oil doesn’t find a buyer at the moment, and is sold as uncertified oil!)

When they checked the film, the regulator of broadcast advertising intervened to stop Iceland from using the film on the grounds that it was “too political”.

And that’s because it was made by Greenpeace for specifically “political” reasons, with no requirement on it whatsoever to worry about being “fair, decent, honest and true”.

This has prompted a massive social media campaign, supported by Corden, Bailey and dozens of equally ill-advised celebs calling for the Rang-tan to be “liberated” from this wicked attempt to curtail freedom of speech.

To be honest, that’s a laugh. The film is unashamedly propagandistic and emotional – as John Sauven, CEO of Greenpeace UK, has explicitly acknowledged.

It focuses on a young girl discovering a baby orang utan in her bedroom after it had been driven out of his forest home. They both have huge, dark brown eyes. It’s well-made, and effective – but deeply manipulative. Why?

  • It implies that the oil palm industry is the biggest cause of deforestation anywhere in the world. It is NOT. Not by a long chalk.
  • It implies that tens of thousands of orang utan are still being killed in Indonesia and Malaysia every year because of oil palm development. They are NOT.
  • It implies that all palm oil, whatever it’s being used for and whoever produces it, is responsible for the death of thousands of orang utan. It is NOT.
  • It implies that responsible consumers will inevitably have to take their share of responsibility for the deaths of orang utan as a consequence of purchasing products which contain palm oil. They do NOT.

Four big, fat, completely mendacious implications. Greenpeace does a lot of good work on palm oil issues in all sorts of different ways, but the story of sustainable palm oil is a complicated one, and it is not helped by willful misrepresentations of this kind.

Bizarrely, Greenpeace knows this as well as anyone. Earlier in November, Greenpeace UK released a video which explicitly acknowledges that boycotting palm oil is the wrong thing to do; that switching from palm oil to other oils can be the wrong thing to do, since palm oil is so much more productive per hectare; and that “growing palm oil without deforestation is possible, and there are growers working that way”.

It then turns up the heat in its campaign against Asia’s leading agribusiness group Wilmar, but does so within the kind of proper contextual background that is so seriously absent in the Rang-tan film. Will the real Greenpeace stand up, please?

More than a million people have signed up to the Rang-tan campaign since then. But it would be so good if we could help deepen their awareness here, bearing in mind that:

  1. By any measure you choose to adopt, more deforestation today is caused by beef, by soybean, and by maize, than by palm oil. Especially beef, which is responsible for 80% of deforestation across the Amazon, and 65% of total deforestation.
  2. Boycotting palm oil is purposeless, as has been recently acknowledged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – in that the world will still need cooking oils, and all the substitutes will cause more damage than palm oil does.
  3. The reason for that is simple. Palm oil provides 35% of global edible oils and yet takes up only 10% of the total global acreage devoted to edible oils. It is so much more efficient than sunflower or rapeseed oil, let alone soybean oil, which is itself a massive driver of deforestation throughout South America.
  4. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has just incorporated strict “no deforestation criteria” into its basic principles and criteria, so there is now no excuse to go on arguing that RSPO certification does not help reduce deforestation.

At which point, I have to make a declaration of personal and professional interest.

In the first place, Forum for the Future does a lot of work with the oil palm industry, for which we are paid.

Our most important project is based in Indonesia where we’re working with five large palm oil companies as well as a wide range of NGOs and international organisations to address complex labour rights challenges within the sector.

But this is also personal. I act as the independent sustainability adviser on behalf of Forum for the Future to Sime Darby Plantation – the largest producer of certified palm oil in the world.

I’ve watched Sime Darby Plantation in particular, together with other big players in the industry, incrementally get its house in order, in order to be able to sell genuinely sustainable palm oil in Europe and elsewhere, as certified by the RSPO.

None of these companies is perfect. Indeed, I remain a fierce critic of just how long it has taken to sort out some of the legacy issues. There are still far too many laggards in the industry, and a lot of environmental damage is still being done.

But to go on vilifying and demonising such a critically important industry, which continues to move forward on challenges like deforestation and better working conditions, makes no sense whatsoever.

The process of certification through the RSPO is indeed not perfect but it’s the best way we have of sorting out the good stuff from the not-good-enough stuff – even if people like Richard Walker don’t understand that basic reality.

So don’t give in to emotion here. Stick to the facts, difficult and messy as they inevitably are.

Just as you should support the good guys in the oil palm industry, and criticise the bad guys, so you should support Greenpeace in the good work it does, but criticise it when it gets it wrong.

This write up published on 22 November 2018 by Sir Jonathon Porritt* in his blog (www.jonathonporritt.com) was in response to a campaign against the alleged refusal of the broadcasting authority to allow a Christmas TV advert by UK retailer Iceland, from being aired on mainstream channels.

The advert, originally produced as an animated short story by Greenpeace UK and narrated by celebrity, Emma Thompson, tells the story of an orang utan ‘forced from her forest home to make way for palm oil production’. Two other UK celebrities James Corden and Bill Bailey also joined the campaign to lift the alleged TV ban.

*Sir Jonathon Porritt is the Co-Founder of Forum for the Future, UK’s leading sustainable development charity, with over 100 partner organisations including some of the world’s leading companies. He is an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development, as well as the Independent Sustainability Advisor to Sime Darby Plantation Berhad, the world’s no. 1 producer of certified sustainable palm oil.

On June 14, 2018, the Council of the EU (the Council), the European Parliament and the European Commission (EC) reached a political agreement during the ‘trilogue’ negotiations on the update of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).

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A lot has been written about the anti-palm oil campaigns that are currently underway in Europe.

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The Malaysian Palm Oil Council unveiled the recipients of its much-anticipated annual industry awards in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 9, 2017.

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In an interview, Malaysian Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, the Hon. Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, considers the impact of recent actions in Europe that are against the interests of the palm oil industry.

How does Malaysia view the EU Parliament’s vote in April to adopt the ‘Resolution on Palm Oil and Deforestation of Rainforests’?
The Resolution makes multiple unjust accusations against the palm oil industry, without offering any evidence. It does not recognise the positive and essential socio-economic role that palm oil plays in producer countries, by reducing poverty and enabling prosperity for millions of small farmers. It is highly disappointing, and highly unusual, that a trading partner would take such a confrontational approach.

As the EU works on formalising its sustainability requirements into law, what course of action does Malaysia have in mind?
What is critical now is that we in Malaysia – the government and private sector – must formulate a comprehensive and fully-resourced strategy to defend Malaysia’s trade interests in Europe. Securing continued market access for Malaysian palm oil is the over-riding objective.

The Resolution aims at phasing out the use of palm oil in the EU’s biofuels production by 2020. Analysts estimate that the EU uses 3-3.5 million tonnes of its palm oil imports for this purpose. Is this a significant volume in terms of Malaysia’s exports?

The volume is not the key factor in this issue – rather, it is the principle that the EU must not discriminate against palm oil. The proposal is unacceptable. It also does not make sense, as it would deprive Europe of an excellent year-round supply of feedstock that is sustainably produced.

This is not the first case of discrimination against palm oil in Europe. Just as Malaysia took a strong stance against the ‘Nutella tax’ proposal in France, we will be equally firm in resisting the process to give legal effect to the Resolution.

 

Could we confirm that the Malaysian government has engaged lawyers to prepare for a scenario where the Resolution may be enforced by law?
It is important to remember that Malaysia and other palm oil-producing countries had communicated facts about palm oil to the MEP Rapporteur in the European Parliament and to others ahead of the April 4 vote on the Resolution.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister has since made it very clear that, whenever there is discrimination, we will retaliate. The correct course of action may not necessarily be legal action, but a comprehensive strategy to defend our products and secure market access in Europe.

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2017 marks the first 100 years of the Malaysian palm oil industry. The initial commercial oil palm plantation was established at Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, in 1917.

The Hon. Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, knows well the history of oil palm development in Malaysia. It has played an important role in the economic success of his home state of Perak, both by way of cultivation and downstream processing. In an interview, he considers the impact the industry has had on Malaysia and the world.

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Malaysian palm oil has come far to become a successful commodity. Would the planters of 1917 have been amazed by the state of the industry today?

I think they would be amazed by what Malaysia – not just its palm oil industry – has achieved. So much has changed over 100 years. We were not even an independent nation in 1917. It is a testament to the brilliance and foresight of the palm oil community that it has remained a constant success and a force for good throughout the historical, technological and political changes of the past century. It is a truly remarkable achievement.

I am sure the founders of Tennamaram Estate would recognise one thing about the modern industry – that the commodity and its fundamentals remain the same: a high-yielding, cost-effective, versatile oil that is far superior to any competing oil. In Malaysia we have turbo-charged those fundamentals with world-class R&D; cutting-edge agricultural techniques; and a strong commitment to responsible and socially beneficial planting.

What have been the major historical turning points for the Malaysian industry over the past 100 years?

Obviously the establishment of the first plantation in 1917 was a major landmark. Two other key turning points also come to mind.

The first is the development of larger-scale integrated processing and exporting in the 1930s. This involved the transport of fruit to standardised processing facilities designed for the export market. So, the final product was of a higher quality than from African processors, which were still operating small-scale plants. This set a benchmark for palm oil quality globally – and helped the young industry in Southeast Asia get ahead of the curve.

The second was in the 1970s. At this time the Malaysian government pushed for the development of downstream processing industries and the diversification of export products. This included the founding of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia. This visionary step set the scene for successful collaboration between the private sector and government. It also created the platform from which the palm oil sector could expand: not just exporting a raw commodity, but also leading in higher-value economic activity.

We should not underestimate our place in history. I believe that historians will look back on these years as a golden age for palm oil. And we have tremendous technological advantages that, if harnessed, can take Malaysian palm oil to even greater heights.

coverstory-palm-fruit

During the course of my long life for over 80 years now, I have always been around or been part of events that relate to the oil palm. Whether at the village level, or at town, state, national and international levels, I have been there. You might ask: how come? Well, let me elaborate.

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Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister, the Hon. Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong is a veteran of politics. He hails from Perak, one of the top three palm oil-producing states in Peninsular Malaysia and an area with a long history of commodity development.

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