Even as Malaysia and Indonesia work towards combating misperceptions behind anti-palm oil products from grocery store shelves, anti-palm oil campaigns in Europe continue to gain momentum.
The various types of anti-palm oil campaigns such as no palm oil labels, do not eat the rainforest and eat plants, no palm please, are driving a number of food manufacturers to reduce the consumption of palm oil in foods.
Children in advanced countries have also sent petitions to pressure food companies to improve palm oil policy in food products. Transparency in food labelling has become a key determinant of food choice.
Consumers in Europe have a deep concern over the rapid expansion of oil palm, associating palm oil with other risk factors for the loss of orangutan habitats, forest fires, land and water pollution alongside social conflicts involving plantation companies and local communities and infringement of human rights.
As the palm industry expanded, conservationists and environmentalists began to raise the alarm about its impacts on carbon emissions.
This resulted in a backlash where palm oil is now seen primarily as a contributor to deforestation. Additionally, the classification of palm oil as a high ‘Indirect Land Use Change’ (ILUC) risk for biofuels has discouraged the use of palm oil in the renewable energy mix.
These efforts, while noble, have potentially unintended and contrary effects on the ground, creating and overly restrictive system which has in turn discouraged some key actors, such as smallholders, from adopting sustainable practices.
It is thus important that palm oil producing countries take action to tackle the most urgent and fundamental questions surrounding palm oil production.
First, a regulation on food information to consumers in food packaging must be introduced and made mandatory. This is to educate consumers and food producers about the misleading claim that banning palm oil will halt deforestation which is unlikely to save the global biodiversity.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature report on Oil Palm and Biodiversity, replacing palm oil to other oil crops would require up to nine times more plantation land to keep up with global demand and will not address deforestation issues.
Second, the status of peatlands, including restoration efforts, must be urgently put as a national priority to upgrade the country’s commitment on sustainability policies and programmes. March 22, 2020 will mark one year anniversary since the endorsement of Policy towards Sustainable Palm Oil, however, we have yet to hear progress on key achievement of the policy.
The lack of progress in examining the extent of environmental degradation associated with palm oil plantation will open up for more ungrounded accusation and bias views.
Third, examining sustainable development challenges requires a broader understanding of palm oil and sustainability. In addition to environmental concerns, the palm industry also receives critiques pertaining to food safety concerns.
For example, European food companies have started to ask palm oil producing countries to lower the amount of impurities in palm oil.
The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification (MSPO) is one of the avenues to address this concern, but improvement to handling of fresh fruit bunches must also be improved.
Otherwise, the mandatory commitment of MSPO may be insufficient to respond to such concerns.
Finally, palm oil producing countries need to develop strong research networks to eliminate publication bias in palm oil research. Echoing suggestions from the World Bank, coordination and collaboration efforts in the palm oil research field seems lacking and require better dissemination of knowledge to inform policy making.
A strong and independent voice from academia is necessary to chart an evidence-based and holistic way forward, mitigating vested influences while constructively informing public discourse and policy making. Current perceptions on palm oil see a dichotomy between an absolute ban on one hand and a key contributor to sustainability on the other.
A multi-pronged strategy incorporating education, conservation and evidence-based research is essential to advancing and improving the palm oil industry.
The writer is a Researcher, Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability Division (TIES) at Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org