Palm Oil Diplomacy

Malaysia’s palm oil industry is angry at an Australian bill demanding labelling. But they’re arguments are slippery.

Luke Hunt

Determining what planet the Malaysian palm oil industry inhabits is about as difficult to comprehend as the arguments they use in support of consuming their crop. This was made clear in Australia recently, where an independent member of parliament is attempting to change the rules to require the labelling of products that contain palm oil.

Independent Australian Sen. Nick Xenophon wants consumers to know if their food contains palm oil produced through deforestation. Palm oil production has been linked with massive deforestation and habitat destruction that’s further endangering orangutans and other animals in Southeast Asia.

Given palm oil’s zero health benefits – although its saturated fats are welcomed by fast food chains everywhere – and a person’s right to know what they are consuming (and the costs of that product to the broader community) most people would think such labelling prudent.

The palm oil industry is, however, none too happy with Xenophon.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) says the bill is based on false claims, adding Australia needed to be mindful of the livelihood of local workers, which would be threatened if it goes ahead. It says poverty remains rife, and MPOC Chief Executive Officer Yusof Basiron told a senate committee that labelling laws would merely provide comfort to rich Westerners.

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He went on to say that supporters of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund would get a great deal of satisfaction from the bill while sipping their skinny lattes, but said that 570,000 Malaysians and their families will suffer. He also said statistics were erroneous and aimed at harming the Malaysian economy and the palm oil industry, adding his industry wasn’t a rapacious destroyer of forests.

Having spent a good deal of the past three years in north Borneo, I can attest to the destruction of natural habitat. A one-way flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau or Sandakan, across the canopy, is more than enough to convince even the most ardent of sceptics of the damage that’s been done. Repeated reports by the United Nations say palm oil is driving deforestation in Southeast Asia, and given the world’s attention to greenhouse gases and climate change, Basron’s arguments have a hollow ring.

The reality is that between 80 percent and 90 percent of primary rainforests in the lowlands are gone. Much of this has been replaced by mono-culture plantations, predominantly palm oil. The industry likes to argue that these plantations are in fact forests and should be included when measuring Malaysia’s total forest cover. Hence industry officials and some in government argue that Malaysia has 80 percent to 90 percent forest cover and should be applauded for its environmental credentials.

It’s nonsense.

However, such arguments lurch from the incongruous to the ridiculous when claiming that truthful labelling in Australia should be scrapped because the industry is being vilified and would be damaged further, or even worse that the livelihoods of Malaysia’s poor would be at risk.

Neither is true and Australians – like anybody else – have a right to know what they are consuming. Malaysian poverty is an issue for that government, and the idea that a nation’s poor can be used as an excuse to hide the contents of a product, no matter how it was made, is odorous.