Much of the media debate surrounding palm oil in recent months has focused on the European Parliament’s proposed ban on palm oil biofuels, as part of the revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).
This focus is understandable – the RED II represents an imminent threat that must be opposed forcefully. Malaysia is leading the opposition to the proposed ban.
This article, however, is not about the RED II. Even in the midst of such a critical period, Malaysia has a responsibility to keep its focus on the wider picture of the palm oil debate not just in Europe, but globally. Our approach must be strategic and a long-term one.
We cannot only focus on what is today’s threat, in order to wear the mantle of thought-leadership, but need to look ahead to what may be the challenges in future. Why? The better we can think and understand the challenges, the better the chance to mitigate and defeat them.
This does not only mean thought-leadership in relation to challenges. There are many of those coming over the horizon – from the EU’s new approach to addressing deforestation to the debate over mutual recognition of certification schemes, and many more.
We must also be brave and set forth a positive, pro-active strategic direction for the future, based on positive messages about Malaysia and its overall conduct of the palm oil industry. A starting point should be an ambition to position Malaysia as a global leader in agriculture – in technology, innovation and development throughout the palm oil supply chain.
Several examples spring to mind. Mapping the oil palm genome is a giant leap – it is beneficial in and of itself, in that it enhances scientific understanding. More importantly, it will have practical consequences benefitting the environment, rural development and economic growth.
We must think of this achievement not in academic terms, but how we position Malaysia as a global leader in agriculture, particularly in oil palm cultivation.
The use of methane capture technology is another major step forward. Ninety-two methane-capture facilities have been completed; over 150 more are in the planning or construction stage. The Malaysian government and industry are working on this together.
This approach will at once reduce carbon emissions, improve profitability through the alternative use of biogas and help ensure future market access for Malaysian palm oil, as greenhouse gas emission standards around the world become stricter.
If this sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. It is simply the fruit of technological innovation, government support and industry pro-activeness.
The focus on yield enhancement through advanced breeding and tissue culture propagation (as opposed to land-bank expansion) is a world-leading effort from Malaysia to prove that sustainability and economic development do not have to be in opposition; rather, they are bedfellows.
The seeds for this success have already been sown. At every opportunity we must remind the world, and especially our critics in Europe, of this far-sighted approach.
Similarly, the development of the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme is far more significant at a global level than perhaps many in the industry or even in Malaysia appreciate.
The MSPO is not merely a new, or locally-driven, standard. It is at the forefront of driving an approach to palm oil sustainability based not on whimsical or arbitrary criteria conceived in the backroom of an NGO headquarters, but on internationally-recognised standard-setting methods such as those used by the International Standards Organisation and United Nations Development Programme.
Send simple, clear messages
Now we must accelerate communicating our vision to the world. We must understand that communicating in Europe and other western markets is different – they do not have the same intimate knowledge of palm oil as Malaysians.
There is already some ingrained prejudice or misguided idealism in the minds of western world consumers. So, we must be more direct by using simpler, clearer messages that frame Malaysia in a positive way. Academic messages don’t resonate – they are not sharp or simple enough for the public and media discourse.
We are talking about the sweet spot for a successful palm oil strategy internationally; long-term thinking, positive messages and simple communication.
An additional factor can be to re-assess our audience. We have been very successful with the trade audience, moving conversations away from negative Green NGO talking points to issues of trade and economics.
France, Spain and other EU member-states support Malaysia in the European RED II debate, precisely because of this strategy. A critical part of our strategic thinking is how to expand this success to reach other sympathetic audiences in European capital cities – the pro-development and community advancement groups, for example.
Another opportunity lies in the pro-innovation and investment audiences in Europe who are interested in agricultural progress and innovation.
We must be realistic that some – if not most – of the environmental or sustainability community will not defend palm oil. Therefore, let us spend our time and money more wisely.
That means working with our current friends, and finding new friends to outnumber our critics. We must raise our eyes to the horizon and aspire to lead the agenda of debate globally.
Datuk Lee Yeow Chor
This is an edited version of an opinion piece published by The Star on April 13, 2018.