Unjustified potshots at palm oil
Italy has become the new frontier for anti-palm oil campaigners in Europe. They are applying familiar tactics to frighten consumers into rejecting the use of palm oil. The aim has not changed: to limit palm oil’s access to the market, in order to protect domestic oilseed crops.
The Malaysian palm oil community is once again called to defend the oil palm – the world’s most productive and sustainable oilseed crop – and to repeat scientifically proven facts about palm oil.
The claims of food campaigners Il Fatto Alimentare, consumer association AltroConsumo and farmers’ grouping Coldiretti are based on falsehood and smears. For one, the allegation that Malaysia is deforesting rainforests and destroying wildlife is manifestly and demonstrably false.
The Malaysian government has committed to protecting at least 50% of the land as forest – a bold and far-sighted environmental commitment that no other country, including Italy, has matched. The commitment has been recognised by the United Nations and the World Bank, among others.
That Malaysia’s forest protection regime is one of the best in the world had won recognition as early as in 1992, at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil. The current attempts in Italy to tell untruths about Malaysia’s environmental record are therefore doubly shameful and dishonourable.
Malaysia is also committed to a balanced development policy that enables land use for agriculture alongside forest protection. The oil palm is the world’s most land-efficient oil-bearing crop. The tree yields about 4-5 tonnes of crude palm oil per hectare per year and about 1 tonne of palm kernel. It requires only 0.26 ha of land to produce one tonne of oil. In comparison, soybean, sunflower and rapeseed respectively require 2.22 ha, 2 ha and 1.52 ha: this is a scientific fact.
Compared to others, the oil palm also consumes less energy in production and uses less fertiliser. All this is achieved on just 0.3% of the world’s agricultural land. This incredible productivity of agriculture allows more forest land to be conserved and protected, and allows poorer economies to develop.
It further illustrates the superiority of palm oil in relation to land conservation and efficient food production. As such, any decision to remove palm oil from the Italian market will only cause more land to be used for other oilseed crops and burden consumers with rising prices.
In Malaysia, small farmers and rural communities have seen their lives improved by cultivating oil palm. As at 2014, they own or farm 38.5% of such holdings in the country. The palm oil sector has helped bring down the national poverty rate from 50% in the 1960s to below 5% today. It is one of the country’s largest employers, directly employing more than 570,000 people. Another 290,000 people are employed downstream.
There is no doubt that Italy’s anti-palm campaign, if it succeeds, would be costly for the Malaysian palm oil community. But it will not suffer alone – Italy’s business and financial sectors would also bear the consequences. As the respected research consultancy Europe Economics has pointed out, 14,000 jobs in Italy are dependent on palm oil imports. Palm oil also contributes 500 million EUR in tax revenue, while over 1 billion EUR in Italian GDP is attributed to palm oil.
Malaysia is a good friend of Italy. As such, the MPOC asks the Italian Government to publicly reject this malicious and mean-spirited campaign. Negative views of palm oil are entirely unjustified. The facts have also been pointed out by multiple parliamentarians, journalists and academics. There is now the beginning of a backlash against the anti-palm oil campaign:
• Last May, members of the Five Star Movement, the anti-establishment party founded by populist Beppe Grillo, submitted a motion to Italy’s Low Chamber of Parliament. Among other items – and following the lines of an online petition against palm oil – it called on the government to ban palm oil from school food as well as hospital and public canteens. However, this paragraph was defeated in the vote.
• In June this year, Minster of Environment, Gianluca Galletti, defended palm oil and Nutella – owned by the historic Italian company Ferrero – from attacks by French Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Minister Segolene Royale. A similar position was taken by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife.
Proven health benefits
Recent articles promoted by protectionist interests in the Italian media have claimed that palm oil has negative health qualities. Such claims are nothing short of disinformation. It is important that consumers in Italy are told the truth, instead of being left wide open to scare-mongering by campaigners.
Palm oil is a healthy, natural oil that is consumed by billions of people worldwide. It is prescribed as an edible fat for human consumption in the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarious standards. It is a balanced oil, with 50% saturated and 50% unsaturated fatty acids. Palm oil is a standard food ingredient and is recognised by scientists as extremely valuable, as it is 100% free of trans fats and genetically modified organisms.
It is used as a replacement for vegetable oils that require hydrogenation – the process that creates trans fats – in the manufacture of certain food products. The negative effects of trans fats have been well documented – they increase the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. So, limiting the use of palm oil in Italy could inadvertently lead to higher intake of trans fats to the detriment of consumers’ health.
Multiple researchers and nutrition experts across Europe have confirmed that the consumption of palm oil should not be feared. Like other vegetable oils, it can safely be included as a component of a healthy, balanced diet.
A 2012 study by the Foundation for Food and Health in France showed that palm oil is not hazardous to human health and the amounts consumed in Europe are within normal levels. The study also praised palm oil’s role in reducing trans fats consumption in the region. A study in 2014 by the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacology in Milan, authored by Drs Elena Fattore and Roberto Fanelli and published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, confirmed that there is no evidence that palm oil is harmful to health.
Palm oil, in fact, has unique properties with potential to boost the health of humankind. It is a rich source of carotenoids, a natural phytonutrient with pro-Vitamin A and antioxidant properties. It has 15 and 30 times more carotenoids than carrots and tomatoes respectively. The red colour of unrefined palm oil is due to its high content of carotenoids, approximately 500 mg/kg, compared to less than 100 mg/kg for other vegetable oils. Palm oil is also one of the richest sources of tocotrienols and tocopherols, which are Vitamin E; these have proven anti-cancer properties and prevent neuro-degeneration.
The French Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement has conducted research on using palm oil to tackle Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, Vitamin A deficiency afflicts more than 250 million children around the globe and kills between 125,000 and 250,000 of them annually.
Given these facts, the only deduction that can be drawn about anti-palm oil campaigns is that these do not have consumer interests at heart. The campaigners only care about protecting their own interests, and promoting their own prejudices.