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Palm Oil & Deforestation: Truth or Fiction?

Palm Oil & Deforestation: Truth or Fiction?

By Frank Tate

Have you ever noticed that a herd of lembu or cows, all tend to move together in the same direction? Have you often wondered why this phenomenon occurs?

Imagine that you are taking a slow and leisurely drive along one of Malaysia’s lovely scenic country roads, away from the speeding juggernauts and cars on the North South highway. As you drive, you take in all the rolling fields of lalang, oil palm plantations stretching as far as the eye can see. Suddenly, something catches your attention. It’s a herd of lembu up ahead, in a nearby open field. Curiosity gets the better of you and you park off the road to investigate further. And there, you stand beside your car, in the middle of nowhere, watching the herd instinct in action.

For unexplained reasons, you scramble towards a low wooden fence and catch up to the lembu as the herd slowly makes its way across the field of lalang. Curious as to why they would all move in the same direction, you look towards the center of the herd and wonder aloud: “Why are all the lembu walking in this particular direction, as if on auto pilot?”

When I ask this question at all my seminars, the response I hear from delegates from all over the world is invariably the same: “They’re all moving in the same direction because everybody else is!”

People and organizations too are like this herd of lembu. They too are strongly influenced by the direction of the surrounding herd. Just take a look at the behavior of some NGO’s in the developed world.

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First, we have the so-called Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Helmed by its Executive Director, the infamous Michael Jacobson, and backed by an annual budget in excess of US$16 million, CSPI has launched disinformation campaigns against Malaysian Palm Oil. In fact, so disingenuous has been Jacobson’s claims that he has earned the rare distinction of being called various things in the media – ranging from the benign “Consumer Advocate” to the less flattering “Nutrition Terrorist”, “Terrorist”, “Food Cop”, “Killjoy”, “Food Fascist”, “Food Nazi” etc. In fact, the latter labels appear with such stunning regularity in the media that few men could have been so definitively defined.

Jacobson, to put it mildly, is guilty of utter disregard for the truth and scientific facts, frequently exaggerating figures and claims to advance CSPI’s own agenda

Having failed in a campaign in the eighties to portray palm oil as unhealthy, Jacobson and CSPI have been racking their collective brains as to how to discredit what is, inherently, healthy oil. Health claims or the converse, “un-healthy” claims, of course, have to be backed by rational science. However, these are matters that CSPI, despite their grandiose and associative-scientific sounding name, would have difficulty in delivering. Throwing figures and “facts” that would fail to pass muster for a secondary school science project, CSPI recklessly and with gay abandon, continues to launch fresh attacks, this time targeting the sustainability of oil palm cultivation. They argue, most deviously, that oil palm plantations have led to the destruction of rainforests and consequently, have deprived orang utans of their natural habitat. Interesting. Perhaps, even persuasive. If not, for the facts!

The superior sustainability of the Malaysian palm oil industry is patently obvious, and it is clear that the Malaysian oil palm cultivation is superior to any large scale agriculture in the tropics or the temperate countries in terms of sustainability parameters. The plantation industry is professionally managed, with many of them such as IOI Corporation, Golden Hope, PPB Group and KL Kepong, operating as listed corporations on the Malaysian stock market where corporate governance and corporate responsibility are well practiced more than farm activities in other parts of the world. The Palm Oil Truth Foundation ( has sought to remedy the misconception that palm oil contributes to deforestation and enlighten the world of the fact that the Malaysian Palm Oil industry has always adopted sustainable cultivation best practices, including conservation and replanting. The MPOC, in fact has set up a US$5 Million Conservation Fund to assist in wild-life conservation.

But Jacobson understands the lembu phenomenon and knows that the herd instinct will take over. And sure enough, the NGO’s and other organizations have taken the bait and like the proverbial lembu, have predictably, blindly followed the herd.

First, the BBC sent a film crew to film the so–called deforestation and habitat loss of the Orang Utans. Then the NGO’s added their voices to the irrational chorus of calls for consumers to avoid palm oil products as they had allegedly come from unsustainable sources. The Friends of the Earth, a UK NGO alleges that “the palm oil industry is now considered by scientists as the biggest threat to the Orang Utan”! Scientists? Which scientists? The pseudo-scientists from the verbose sounding “Center for Science in the Public Interest”? It was almost hilarious to watch documentary after documentary warning of the dangers of palm oil because of the damage caused by the humble oil to Orang Utan habitats. Hilarious because nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as Malaysia is concerned!

Comprehensive policies and laws on environmental protection are in place in Malaysia and are strictly enforced by the Department of Environment. Endangered species, including Orang Utans, needing protection are given priority with strong conservation programs put in place. Sabah, with a growing palm oil industry and one of the largest states in Malaysia had drafted a master list of protected areas based on the guidelines of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). In fact, 21.8% of Sabah is now protected, more than double the 10% recommended by the IUCN. It is also interesting to note that the Malaysian Palm oil industry is the prime mover for the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil to encourage best practices and to minimize any adverse impact on the environment by the industry, long before the latest shenanigans initiated by CSPI started.

Almost all oil palm expansion in Malaysia is pursued through the conversion of existing rubber, cocoa and coconut plantations or from logged over forest areas which have been earmarked for agriculture. Moreover, out of the total land area of 30.2 million hectares, only 6 million hectares have been designated for agriculture under the Third Malaysia Agricultural Plan. Oil palm cultivation falls well within the area zoned for agriculture. Ironically, the area still under forest cover remains at well over 60 %, certainly much higher than that of the developed nations from which all this brouhaha over Orang Utan habitats are originating.

Recently, the European Free Alliance MEP’s together with an MEP grouping known as The Greens in the European Parliament (together, they form the 4th largest grouping in the European Parliament) lent their not inconsiderable voice to the issue. Lobbying the European Parliament’s “Industry, Technology, Research and Energy Committee”, which is tasked with proposing energy policies with an agreed EU target of 25% biomass renewables by 2020, this grouping managed to get the Energy committee to include, inter alia an amendment to “ban the use of palm oil for feeding our cars” due to the “lack of environmental standards and safeguards” leading to “an increase in tropical deforestation”, whilst “failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly”! Couching their proposal in euphemistic language, and this really takes the cake, the grouping went on to justify their proposal on the basis that the emergence of a European biofuels sector would offer opportunities for biofuel technology transfer to developing countries crippled by rising oil prices! It is this last statement that gives a clue as to the grouping’s real agenda and intentions. The proposal is designed to protect their turf, to protect the European biofuel sector! So much for all the WTO rules against protectionism.

It is about time that the world wakes up to such insidious and deceptive campaigns and that can only be achieved when the world develops the discernment to see through the veil and stop being lembus. That may be counter-intuitive but the herd instinct can only be overcome through education and clear branding and communication programs. Programs that will, ultimately, expose the lies and half-truths that appear to be the penchant and almost exclusive purview of CSPI and others of their ilk.


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