Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday (Jun 17) hit out at the international community's negative perceptions of the palm oil industry, while stating that palm oil cultivation has not affected his country’s ecosystem.
Speaking during a question and answer session after delivering a speech on democracy in Malaysia and the region, the prime minister noted that "palm oil is the cheapest edible vegetable oil".
It is also easy to cultivate, and once planted, the yield can be enjoyed for up to 25 years, unlike other oils such as soybean and rapeseed, he said at Cambridge University.
"For that reason, palm oil is able to compete (with other oils) and likely to win. So they (the West) invented this idea that we are cutting down trees to plant (oil) palm trees and depriving animals of their habitats."
Dr Mahathir, who is on a three-day working visit to the United Kingdom, questioned the assumption that palm oil cultivation has harmed Malaysia's environment.
"You talk about the environment, clearing the forests, but look at Britain for example, where is Sherwood Forest? Is it still there? Is Robin Hood still operating from there?”
"Most of the forests in Europe has been cleared, so much so there are no more wild animals in Europe,” Dr Mahathir said.
He added with a laugh: “In Malaysia, we still have tigers. If you like to go into the jungle, we can send you there."
Putrajaya has capped the total oil palm plantation area at 6.5 million hectares, and no new permanent forest areas or peatland would be allowed to be converted to oil palm cultivation.
Dr Mahathir had said in March that the European Union risked opening up a trade war with Malaysia over its "grossly unfair" policies aimed at reducing the use of palm oil.
The comments came after the European Commission concluded that palm oil cultivation results in excessive deforestation and its use in transport fuel should be phased out by 2030.
He suggested then that the EU’s increasingly hostile attitude towards palm oil was an attempt to protect alternatives that Europe produced itself, like rapeseed oil.
On Monday, the veteran politician said that Malaysia wanted to compete with the rest of the world in a fair manner.
"We have to make some money from the resources we have. We have to utilise our resources. Our fertile soil is suitable for palm oil, therefore we produce palm oil,” he said.
Malaysia is the world's second biggest palm oil producer after Indonesia, and it relies on the crop for billions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings and hundreds of thousands of jobs.