KUALA LUMPUR: A picture of an orangutan clinging to its life with the backdrop of a burning forest covered in smoke and linking it to oil palm and deforestation has had its fair share in determining the golden crop’s reputation globally.
However, is it the whole truth or a game of perception by some quarters in cherry-picking what they want the world to believe in?
In fact, the cultivation of soybean to date is still a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin, to a point it is quickly endangering the animals who call it home.
The findings were made by various research houses including Yale school of forestry and environmental studies.
While the so-called harm and danger caused by oil palm are deliberated, those plantations that cause worse environmental damage are kept under wraps and labelled as a fair game.
As the battle between the edible oils, namely the main three – rapeseed, sunflower and soybean, continue to wedge across the world especially in Europe with palm oil produced by ASEAN countries, namely Malaysia and Indonesia, an amicable solution is desperately needed.
Discussing the matter, pioneer palm oil researcher Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong Soon Hock said the government should come out with more win-win situations with other major edible oil-producing countries.
He stressed that this was because if the anti-palm oil campaign continues, it would not only hurt Malaysia’s economy but would also impact the European food and energy industry.
“A tit-for-tat approach is not useful for anyone. From a researcher’s point of view, the only way we can combat this is by providing the best available data and information on how palm oil has benefited the world economy,” he said in an interview with Bernama.
This is not the first time that the palm oil industry had faced such backlash as it started back in the late 1980s, as since then, misinformation on palm oil has always been there, he added.
“Instead of backbiting, global industry leaders should engage each other, have a dialogue and work together in making the edible oil industry better. We need to focus on making edible oil cultivation more environmentally-friendly, not endangering it further,” he said.
According to data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), from January to October 2019, Malaysian palm oil export to the European region recorded a total of 1.8 million tonnes, an increase of 3.43% in the same period in 2018.
Despite the ruling on palm-based biofuels, Malaysian palm oil exports to the European Union continued to increase due to the high demand following steeper prices of biodiesel feedstock and insufficient supplies of rapeseed oil in the EU domestic market.
The EU has also threatened that it would ban palm-based biodiesel imports into the continent unless the palm oil is sustainably-produced according to the EU Delegated Act.
In the Amsterdam Declaration, EU member states, namely Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom wanted to import only fully-sustainable palm oil from 2020.
The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard is one of the major moves undertaken by the Ministry of Primary Industries in tackling the negative perception and promote sustainable management of oil palm to consumers and governments.
Its Minister Teresa Kok Suh Sim had said that Malaysia needed to fulfil the demand of customers comprising the developed nations which wanted palm oil to be produced via a sustainable and environmentally-friendly method.
“Demand for palm oil is indeed always high but they want the palm oil which is produced through a more sustainable method. As such, we, as the producer must comply with what the customers want.”
For the record, 62.4% or 3.64 million hectares of oil palm plantations in the country had obtained the certification.
Besides this, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was recently given permission by the Malaysian government to publish the maps of members’ oil palm concessions in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak. The interactive maps can now be accessed via its GeoRSPO platform.
The move is set to deliver greater transparency to the sustainable oil palm sector, and the RSPO secretariat said the maps were not published previously due to the legal ambiguities on its disclosure to the public.
Meanwhile, Ong said palm oil had been widely misunderstood by the West since before, although research had scientifically proven that the commodity is much more environmentally-friendly and healthier compared with other types of oil.
“One hectare of oil palm can produce four times more oil than the same amount of land used to plant soybean. With continuous research being conducted, I believe we can increase the production without adding the land planted area,” he said.
Ong who is also internationally recognised in the field of lipid chemistry said in terms of the chemical compound, palm oil is also much more stable especially under high temperature compared with other types of edible oil.
“Besides that, palm olein which is the liquid fraction obtained during fractionation of palm oil has the same benefits as virgin olive oil.
“Palm oil is also rich in carotene which is known to be anti-cancer as well as rich in vitamin A,” he said.
Oil palm was first brought and introduced in Malaysia as an ornamental plant in 1870, and in the early 1970s, under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the industry has grown at a rapid pace, thereby elevating thousands of Malaysians from poverty.
Today, the oil palm industry continues to play a vital role in the growth of the agricultural sector through its annual contribution to the gross domestic product of around 4.5%.
It generates significant foreign exchange earnings of more than RM60 billion annually and provides employment and business opportunities for more than a million people including at least 500,000 smallholders. – Jan 2020, Bernama