Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Science is on the side of Palm Oil

Palm oil's success in penetrating the world market in a dominant way over the last three decades was due to its popularity for use in food and oleochemical sectors. Initially producers of competing oils felt threatened by the rapid advancement in the market share of palm oil. This resulted in deliberate campaigns mounted in the USA in the 1980s to discourage the importation of palm oil.

Health issues were used as a disguise to set up trade bariers linking palm oil to saturated fats as these fats were known to raise cholesterol levels. However, these claims were not supported by any well designed nutritional studies. On the contrary many comparative studies showed the neutral or lowering effects on cholesterol by a palm oil diet especially when compared to coconut oil or fats in the habitual western diet.

In other studies when the liquid olein of palm oil was compared with (liquid) olive oil or (liquid) canola oil, the cholesterol lowering results were similar.Similarly, blends of palm olein with soya and /or canola oil, had a beneficial effect of improving the ratio of good HDL (high-density lipoprotein)to bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Such findings have been patented and products made under such patents in the USA are allowed by the Foods and Drugs Authority(FDA) to carry the label "Patented blend to help improve your cholesterol ratio."

With the growing interest in the detrimental effects of trans fatty acids(TFA), studies comparing palm oil and TFA were conducted. It became clear that trans fatty acids have the dual negative effects of increasing the bad LDL cholesterol and reducing the good HDL cholesterol, while palm oil has the effect of raising the good cholesterol, and lowering or having a neutral effect (non significant increase) on the bad LDL cholesterol. This led experts to conclude that palm oil is a reasonable alternative to TFA especially when fat products are required for funtionality purposes.

Trans fats are produced by hydrogenating soft oils to make them solid for use in baking and margarines. Hydrogenation produces artificial TFA which cause the double negative effects on cholesterol levels. The health authorities in the USA are discouraging the consumption of TFA containing fats. TFA have been scientifically linked to the incidence of heart disease.

Based on these scientific studies, the entire anti palm oil campaign machinery in the USA did not succeed in dampening the palm oil demand because science was and continues to be on the side of palm oil.

There are those who will argue that the poly-unsaturated oils will reduce cholesterol more than palm oil. This question was actually investigated by comparing palm oil and corn oil against coconut oil as a positive control. The study revealed that palm oil raised the good HDL cholesterol and reduced the bad LDL cholesterol. Although corn oil reduced the bad LDL cholesterol more than palm oil but it also reduced the good HDL cholesterol when tested against the coconut oil control. This study clearly indicated that corn oil does not help improve the cholesterol ratio. These scientific results make it difficult for any expert to conclude that corn is better than palm oil or vice versa.

Numerous scientific studies showed that palm oil although having up to 50% saturated fatty acids does not behave as a saturated fat in that it does not raise cholesterol levels like saturates. Studies were conducted to help explain the "unexpected" non-cholesterol raising effects of palm oil. One study found that as long as there is a small percentage presence of unsaturates (as usually is the case in practice because the body receives blends of oils and fats), palm oil is non cholesterol raising in its behavior. Others postulate that palm oil molecules have unsaturated fatty acids occupying the middle position of the three glyceride carbon chain, and this unsaturation makes palm oil non cholesterol raising.

The beauty of science based studies is that the results are repeatable. References to these studies can be easily made available in case such experiments need to be repeated.

But this is not the case in the current practice of NGOs who offer their unsubstantiated opinions and provide only incomplete evidence relating to the environmental debate on palm oil. The anti-palm oil campaigns conducted by some so called environment friendly European NGOs failed to provide concrete proof on deforestation effects of palm oil. (Showing pictures of legal agricultural land under preparation for oil palm planting is no proof of deforestation).

Despite the resouces available in the EU there is no systematic scientific study on the carbon dioxide emission saving on palm oil based biofuel. A pathetic (non-scientifically derived) carbon emission saving figure of 32 % was arbitrarily assigned to palm oil to make it fall below the thresh hold level of 35 % which is used as the minimum level accepted for biofuel raw material in the EU. Ironically, rapeseed oil in the EU qualified because some "experts" assigned it a default carbon emission saving figure of 36 %. If proper LCA studies were indeed conducted and the carbon sink properties of the oil palm trees and the deforestation avoidance effect of palm oil were accounted for, the carbon emission saving figure for palm oil biofuel would be more than 100%, making it the ideal renewable biofuel. Again, in these postulations, the science favours palm oil. Eventually the truth will prevail despite the manipulation of carbon emission saving figures for palm oil in the EU.

Overall, the current anti-palm oil campaign conducted by some NGOs in the EU seems to attack the agricultural sector of a developing country like Malaysia. If the EU governments manipulate the emission saving figure to disqualify palm oil from being used as normal raw material for biofuel, they too are guilty of colluding with the NGOs by setting a trade barrier against the agricultural produce of a developing country. If the palm oil producing countries in turn were to retaliate by not favouring the importation of EU produced cars in preference for Japanese and Korean cars makers, the world's current economic recession will likely last longer, especially in Europe.

Even though Malaysia designates a small portion of its land area for agriculture(less than 25% of its total land) and oil palm is an agricultural crop, the NGOs and some environmental scientists still insist on criticizing the oil palm plantation as not having high biodiversity like the forest. Why can't these commentators be fair and match apples with apples by comparing oil palm plantations with other agricultural crops? They also insist that palm plantations will destroy forests. Again, all agricultural land in Malaysia must be derived from the clearing of an original forest, and no body is denying that because a country like Malaysia will try to develop its agricultural sector to an optimum level for example by planting oil palm on degraded land that is suitable and zoned for agriculture.

In reality a hectare of oil palm plantation will produce on average 4 tonnes of palm oil and when this is imported by other countries, it will save them from cutting 10hectares of forest if they were to grow their own soyabean crop to produce 4 tonnes of oil equivalent. Oil palm plantations have an indirect land use effect of saving ten times more forest area in the importing countries when they import their palm oil from Malaysia. This is referred to as the deforestation avoidance effect.

For those opposed to the development of biofuel, it is good to know that the oil from one hectare of oil palm plantation provides the longest travel on a standard car compared to any other biofuel including ethanol from sugarcane (or at least 10 times more distance than the oil from a hectare of soyabean). Countries such as Malaysia should feel lucky in having plenty of palm oil based biofuel to cater for its need in future when fosil fuel continues to be a scarce commodity.

Malaysia has its own biodiesel policy and technology. It needs to develop the local use of palm biofuel to reduce dependency on fossil fuel, and as a palm oil producer, there is a need to find new applications of palm oil to increase its market value. The announcement by the Malaysian Government to undertake mandatory blending of palm biofuel with petroleum diesel starting from February 2009 and the implementation of this policy means that palm biofuel market is no longer restricted to exist only in the EU .

The demand for biofuel will unlikely lead to deforestation in Malaysia as implied in the allegations by some of the EU NGOs. Why should Malaysia jeopardise its forests to accede to the wishes of the EU to meet its biofuel targets. In practice,palm oil will be available for biofuel to the world only when its use as food is already fulfilled and the excess (which causes prices to fall) will be cheap enough for use as biofuel. At most other times, palm oil will likely be expensive for use as biodiesel, since food demand due to chronic shortages of supply faced by most countries of the world will force palm oil prices to increase. Only Malaysia and Indonesia are major net exporters of oils and fats, (mostly palm oil), and Argentina is a distant third as a net exporter of mainly soyabean oil, while most other countries are net importers of oils and fats. This time, not only will the science favour palm oil in the environmental debate, the lack of alternative large sources of oils and fats availability also favour palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia to remain the major source of supply to the world market whether for use in food or biofuel.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Creating a fine balance for development, food security and environment sustainability.

In the ongoing sustainability debate, it is important for a developing country to ensure a fair balance between the need to develop its economy, produce sufficient food for its people and preserve the environment for sustainable development. Unfortunately, for environmental NGOs, the one-sided focus on only the environment projects an extremely unbalanced viewpoint.

Malaysia, as a developing country, has been successful in bringing about this balance by continuing to invest in the agricultural sector, in addition to developing its manufacturing, tourism, IT and services sectors. For a developing country, land is always identified as an asset that can be developed both to generate revenue and to achieve food security. If all these developments are carried out in a sustainable manner, the environmental preservation and conservation objectives are eventually fulfilled.

The contributions of palm oil and rubber to the Malaysian economy range from 5 to 8 % of the country's GDP. These two commodities not only helped Malaysia to fight the malaise of poverty but also provide the much needed food and income for the rural communities. Globally, palm oil and rubber from Malaysia are vital commodities to meet the world's industrial and food needs. For example, tyres for aeroplanes and large transportation vehicles have to be made with a high percentage content of natural rubber. Malaysia's contribution is significant as it is the world's major exporter of natural rubber. Similarly, more than 150 countries depend on palm oil from Malaysia for their supply of vegetable oils and fats for cooking, frying, making margarine and bakery fats, oleochemicals and other uses. While 55% of world oils and fats exports are accounted for by palm oil products, Malaysia alone supplies an estimated 30 %!

The major food items of the world are fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Producing palm oil (a fat) is what Malaysia does best with its agricultural land. On the other hand Malaysia has no natural advantage in producing the other two food components ie proteins and carbohydrates which the country imports using excess income from the exports of palm oil. Simple economics therefore tells us that the country achieves food securinty in fats, proteins and carbohydrates by importing the latter two using the excess income from the exports of the former.

It is crucial for a developing country to have an assurance of food security especially by employing its most important asset- agricultural land. Such an assurance makes it easier for the country to develop its other economic sectors. One often sees failures to develop a country's economy when food insecurity prevails, and such countries often have to depend on foreign food aids.

Oil palm happens to be an efficient and high yielding agricultural oil crop. To produce the current 20 million tonnes of palm oil and palm kernel oil products, Malaysia only employs 4.5 million hectares of agricultural land or 13.6% out of the country's total land area of 33 million hectares. If the country were to produce 20 million tonnes of soyabean oil instead, assuming international yield capability of 0.4 tonnes per hectare, Malaysia would need 50 million hectares of land, which it obviously does not have.

Palm oil is now seen as the key to the successful formula used by Malaysia, as a developing country, to achieve a fine balance between bringing continuous development, achieving food security, and preserving the forests and the environment. A significant 60% of the total land area is still intact under permanent forest, most of which is subjected to sustainable forest management under the ITTO protocol.

A lack of appreciation of these achievements has led to unwarranted calls by certain environmental NGOs for a moratorium on deforestation based on their simplistic accusation that oil palm cultivation is associated with deforestation. If forest lands are already safeguarded by the existing laws of the country and are further subjected under international protocol to be sustainably managed, calling for moratorium on deforestation does not make sense and will be considered redundant.

Furthermore, it is also unethical , immoral and somewhat patronising for NGOs of the developed countries in Europe to ask developing countries such as Malaysia to stop developing its land. This will lead to conflicts and misunderstanding because some states in Malaysia have not yet had the opportunity to develop their agricultural land as they were until a few decades ago under oppressive colonial rule. Sarawak which achieved independence from the British later than Peninsular Malaysia had only developed 8% of its land for agriculture as compared to over 70%by the UK. But there are still opportunities in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia to develop degraded logged over land for planting oil palm and rubber to increase the country's sources of foreign exchange while avoiding deforestation of its pristine permanent forests.

It is highly likely that the government and people of Malaysia are enlightened enough themselves to be more concerned than the EU NGOs and the EU governments on the need to preserve their pristine permanent forests for the benefit of the present and future generations. I would urge NGOs to refrain from campaigning against the use of palm oil as this is unfair to our farmers who have been exporting the agricultural produce for many generations in the past. Palm oil is an agricultural commodity that has been produced on agricultural land for generations, just like the production of rapeseed and soya in the EU countries.

It is even more perplexing to hear of attempts by irresponsible EU NGOs wanting to protest against the arrival of RSPO certified palm oil into the EU. Such a negative move should be condemned as RSPO is a sincere multi-stakeholders attempt to improve and ensure the sustainable production of palm oil for the export market. The establishment of the RSPO was initiated by NGOs like the WWF and the Malaysian palm oil industry gladly took up the challenge and proved sustainability was possible in a well organised sector that has long adhered to proper rules and regulations. RSPO has just started its sustainability agenda and further improvements can be anticipated. Instead these NGOs who seem to want to remain outside the RSPO fraternity could make a more positive contribution through offering their fertile ideas to improve palm oil sustainability if they join and become members of the RSPO. The Malaysian palm oil industry was hopeful that the RSPO, however imperfect, should be the platform to nurture and promote sustainability and not be the stage where non member NGOs undermine the sterling efforts by plantation company members who have been certified as capable of producing RSPO certified palm oil. It is time for readers to write back to these irresponsible NGOs to protest against their high handed approach in denying producers and farmers from a developing country access for their products to be exported to the EU market.

I would also like to encourage ill-informed environmental scientists not to compare the biodiversity of an agricultural crop such as the oil palm with that of rain forests. The findings would not win you a Nobel price. A fair comparison should be made with soyabean, rapeseed, corn or sugarcane or other agricultural crops. Biodiversity that exists in the oil palm plantations is a bonus for all to benefit, while we continue to enjoy a consistent supply of oil for our daily food needs, in addition to palm oil- an agricultural commodity - helping to promote economic growth not only in the developing countries but also in all other countries involved in using the product.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dialogue on Sustainability, Deforestation and Global Warming

The writer had the pleasure of chairing a joint Q&A session with the Hon. Malaysian and Indonesian Minister

During a recent series of meetings between Malaysian palm oil delegation members and European Ministers, Members of Parliament, EU Officials, experts and NGO representatives, it became clear to me that some of the European dialogue partners have very strange perceptions and views relating to deforestation, sustainability and carbon dioxide or green house gas (CHG) emissions. I took note of their views and tried to analyse why they were often very much opposed to the views of the palm oil producers who are involved in the day to day operations of the oil palm industry.

Question from EU Member of Parliament: - “Agricultural crops usually draw too much water from the soil resulting in water shortages which later lead to desertification. Will oil palm cultivation lead to water stresses resulting in unsustainable production?”

From my experience, such a question is best answered if the questioner can visit a typical oil palm plantation in Malaysia. As the Hon. MEP was later informed, the oil palm grows well in the tropical climate of Malaysia where evenly distributed rainfall exceeds the ideal level 2000 mm per year. As there is no irrigation needed water is not diverted away from water bodies therefore avoiding water shortages and stresses. Even water used for processing during oil extraction is recycled, after treatment, to waterways thus avoiding environmental problems.

The lack of knowledge on oil palm plantation and using other temperate crops as bench mark seemed to be the reason for the inaccurate perception and suspicious nature of the question posed by the Hon. MEP.

Question from a big buyer of palm oil: - Why can’t the palm oil industry stop converting forests for oil palm plantations, and instead work hard to increase yield per hectare which ultimately will increase supply sufficient enough to meet the expansion in demand for palm oil?

The gentleman was basically posing a theoretical question although he was very serious. In theory, it is possible to double the yield of the palm in Malaysia and individual plantations have regularly achieved such results. His own company which used to have oil palm plantations in Malaysia tried to increase the yield for their estates and surrounding smallholders but failed to achieve substantial improvements. It is even more difficult to have the whole industry to double the national average yield because of the heterogeneous players of small-scale farms and big plantations.

To demand a moratorium on deforestation is too premature and will be punitive to developing countries. Developing countries are yet to develop their agricultural sector fully and a state like Sarawak has only 8% of its total land area under agriculture compared to 70% in the UK. Large tracks of degraded forest land can be developed into agricultural areas with the potential of rehabilitating the land into sustainable agricultural areas and the revenue generated will help preserve the remaining forests from unwarranted encroachments and subsequent degradation. Oil palm is the best crop to help rehabilitate the ecology of degraded tropical land while bringing remunerative income.

Although there are many types of forest classification in Malaysia, and they can serve different functions including for agriculture, our dialogue partners in the EU seem to know only the phrase “tropical rain forest” and hold the view that these forest must be preserved at all costs. In Malaysia every area of land was originally rain forest and the present non forest areas will revert to become rainforest if left undisturbed for about 20 years. A moratorium on no deforestation will simply mean no development, and the country will remain underdeveloped forever.

A large turnout at the World Sustainable Palm Oil Conference 2008 in London

It is better for NGOs and green MEPs in the EU to campaign hard to recreate the over-deforested (agricultural)land of Europe into reforested areas. The objective of maintaining biodiversity and sequestering carbon through reforestation in Europe would contribute significantly to prevent global warming, and this sets a good example for developing countries.It would even be better if the EU countries can follow the standard set in Malaysia and Indonesia where forest areas exceed 60 % of total land area while still managing to produce and export vegetable oils (palm oil and palm kernel oil) accounting for 75% of world net exports of oils and fats.

A common question asked by the dialogue partners during the meetings was how the EU authorities arrived at such a damaging typical default figure of 32 % carbon emission saving for palm oil compared to petroleum fuel, which makes its look the least desirable raw material for biodiesel production.

Apparently, an incomplete equation and a punitive assumption of processing in-efficiencies were used to show low default values for palm oil. The typical default value for palm oil was even lower than the accepted thresh-hold carbon emission saving figure of 35 % stipulated in the proposed EU biofuels directive.

It is illogical for a perennial crop with an all-year-round lush green canopy similar to that of a planted forest type of environment, and that yields ten times more oil per hectare compared to soyabean, to be given an inferior carbon emission saving default figure of 16%.

A study using the Life Cycle Inventory Technique by Dr Chen, a scientist with the Standard and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia (SIRIM) showed that palm oil is a net carbon sequester when used as biodiesel. It means that palm biodiesel achieves carbon emission savings of more than 100 % when compared to petroleum diesel, and not 16% as assigned by the EU authorities. This is derived from the carbon sequestration and multi co-product characteristics of the oil palm, and if confirmed by other independent studies, this new figure will mean that only palm oil is fit to be used as biodiesel while the other competing oils will only have a marginal carbon emission saving effect and most of them will not meet the new thresh-hold carbon emission saving of 45 % proposed in the latest EU biofuels directive.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Carbon Emission Blame Game - Will the Real Culprit Please Stand Up!

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The largest source of carbon emission leading to global warming is by burning of fossil fuels. The developed countries are the largest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide because of their high level of economic activities. Because fossil fuel is needed for economic activities and wealth creation, carbon emission seems to be not an issue for these developed countries. Instead, they even demand the OPEC countries to increase petroleum supplies so that more fossil fuel can be burned (more carbon emission) to sustain their countries economic growth.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the use of palm oil as biofuel, the argument is completely altered. The carbon dioxide emission from palm oil biofuel is blamed as contributing to global warming. They are also scheming to blame palm oil biofuel as non sustainable due to deforestation claims by NGOs.

Attempts are made to disqualify palm oil from being considered for biofuel in the EU, and Oregon and Minnesota States in the USA without any scientific basis. Yet, palm oil is an agricultural commodity, similar to soyabean or rapeseed oil that has been traded in the world market for decades. Oil palm cultivation has long been an economic activity of Malaysia and other developing countries. Curtailing Malaysia's economic activities by restricting the use of palm oil in biofuel is unfair - as there is no curtailing of the use of soyabean oil or rapeseed oil for biofuel. Similarly, the use of fossil fuel continues, although it is known to emit the maximum amount of carbon dioxide.

Malaysia has a right to use part of its land for agriculture. Approximately, 20 % of total land in the country is under agriculture, while 60 % is reserved as permanent forest. Putting a stop to agricultural expansion for a developing country whose assets are in agricultural land is unfair. The developed countries do not stop expanding the use petroleum fuel knowing that this will affect their economy although fossil fuel emits maximum carbon dioxide and causes global warming.

Malaysia's agricultural area of 6.5 million hectares represents a mere 0.08 % of world agricultural land area. It is generally agreed that most of the world agricultural land was originally forest. Therefore the forest utilised by Malaysia for agricultural activities must be 0.08% of total world forest used for such purposes in the past. Since oil palm occupies 66% of Malaysia's agricultural land, only 0.05 % of the world's original forest which was lost to agriculture was used for cultivation of oil palm by Malaysia. Since 6% of oil palm area in Malaysia was peat land, the world forest land lost to agriculture due to planting of oil palm on peat was 0.005%. I fail to understand how the NGOs are blaming the oil palm as a large source of carbon emission when the amount of peat land used by some farmers who plant this crop to support their families is only representing 0.005% of world forest lost to agriculture.

If one intends to find the real culprits for the cause of deforestation due to agriculture, there are many other crops and countries that can be singled out. As a perennial agricultural crop, Malaysian oil palm is in fact a carbon sink as all the oil palm trees provide all- year- round green cover for 97% of the total oil palm areas ( 3% is under relanting). The oil palm plantations behave as a planted forest in terms of carbon sink properties, and as an agricuiltural crop, it supports an important economic function of Malaysia similar to soyabean which supports the economic function of many countries.

There are also questions posed on biodiversity in oil palm plantations. But what about other crops that are planted elsewhere? Do they have biodiversity on their agricultural land? It is not fair to insist on high level of biodiversity to exist on our oil palm areas because it is an agricultural crop. Biodiversity exists on the permanent forests which have been generously provided for in Malaysia's land use policy. It is not fair to ask Malaysia to sacrifice its agricultural activity as the carbon emission saving is neglible. It is far more ironic to know that the developed countries that speak so highly of good standards and claim to be saving the planet from destruction refuse to set good examples themselves as they continue to ask OPEC countries to increase petroleum supply (certain to increase carbon emission) to fulfill their economic appetite.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How Much Agricultural Development is Right for a Sustainable Future of a Country

For a tropical country such as Malaysia, every inch of land would be under forest or would have been under forest cover sometime in the past. I am always willing to acknowledge that all our agricultural activities, our industrial land, our towns, cities, highways and airports have replaced forests and have affected biodiversity or have released green house gases to the atmosphere . Every country has sacrificed some of their land for agricultural and other uses over the years when they undergo the process of development. Some use their land extensively for agriculture, others don't. Others have not yet the time or the funds to develop their land, as is the case with many developing countries.

Current debate by some NGOs is tending to link agricultural activities with deforestation. To have a healthy debate, there must be some definitions. For example, what percentage of our country's land area is allowed for agriculture, and what percentage should be conserved as forests. Would this percentage be uniform as an international benchmark, or should it be different for developed countries as compared to developing countries. If it is different who is to determine what is the right percentage, especially for those developing countries which since achieving independence from their colonial masters have not been able to develop their land for agriculture.

In Malaysia, oil palm and rubber are major agricultural crops. Some NGOs try to alledge that oil palm causes deforestation, but they never made such critisms on our rubber industry. If we cannot grow oil palm we surely will grow rubber, cocoa, coconuts etc on our agricultural land, and get on with our daily life. If we use 24 % of our land for agriculture, is that wrong. What if we use 30% for agriculture. Why cann't we follow the UK which used up to 70 % of their land for agriculture and enjoy a good standard of living as a result. Are we not allowed to enjoy a good standard of living? Put it in another way, if the UK were to only use 8%of the land for agriculture as in Sarawak, it is likely that their standard of living would be lower than what they enjoy for now.

Why don't we set up an international standard for the percentage of agricultural land allowed for each country. Let us start with a range of 30 to 50 % allowed for conversion to agriculture. In terms of carbon footprint, related to global warming, those countries keen to comply with the target and bring their agricultural land ratio to below 50% can reforest their land accordingly. Those countries still having less than 50 % of their land under agriculture can be allowed to develop according to their development needs. In times of food shortage, it is important to expand food production by making land available for agriculture. If 50% of arable land is allowed for agriculture and up to 50 % left as forest, there will be a fair balance for wildlife habitats and human food production capacity.

It will be good if the NGOs provide leadership in coming out with the guidelines. Otherwise, we argue on different assumptions and understanding on what constitute deforestation. Some even post personal criticisms from such misunderstanding. It is important to have an open debate. In our recent sustainability conference, I raised a few bold ideas in front of 500 attendees, but no one was bold enough to challenge my statements. Later some criticisms were raised in the NGOs websites. So much for being bold or otherwise.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Carbon Debts

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Current debate on sustainability and global warming relates to green house gases emissions. Those experts with vested interest to potray negatively on targeted industries are devising and manupulating various formulae and asssumptions to potray undesirable carbon emmission figures for their targeted industry while carefully ajusting to ensure their national industries competing in the related industries are not affected. Palm oil industry has been facing this manupulative expert data for sometime now in the EU and USA.

One simple approach used is to arbitarily establish a cut-off date in counting the start of carbon emission. The RSPO wanted the cut-off year to be 2005. The EU is proposing 2007. Both dates will exclude the agricultural areas of the EU or USA from having a carbon debt based on the removal of the original forest on the land before it was turned into agriculture. Competing crops from these countries in the form of rapeseed or soya will have a head start in their comparison with palm oil when relating to their carbon emission numbers.

I would propose that all land when turned into agricultural use will carry a carbon emmission debt based on the original forest that was cleared. The cleared forest which acted as a carbon sink had released carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If the land is reforested the carbon debt is repaid. Developed countries can opt to reforest their converted land rather than ask developing countries to sacrifice development through no deforestation.

This recognition of a past carbon debt on every hectare of land under agriculture is a fairer basis as the starting point for calculating carbon emission numbers of various crops. If I have some support on this idea, it may be worthwhile to push it as a standard for international adoption.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Question of Sustainability

We receive many requests for information on sustainability of the palm oil industry. Those involved in the palm oil industry like to have information to counter negative allegations linking oil palm cultivation to potential deforestation. Those in the middle of the debate want to know more of the true situation in order to form their own opinion. Those NGOs and their followers bent on opposing the growth of the oil palm industry simply want to demonise the palm oil industry whenever they could without regard to the facts or supporting statistics.

For example, statements are made accusing the oil palm plantations as the cause of deforestation in Malaysia. These statements are never supported by statistics or verified evidence. Isolated cases of bad practices in other countries are used to generalise for the whole of the oil palm industry including those in Malaysia.

The most important point to note is that oil palm is our agricultural crop, planted on legitimate agricultural land which the country has zoned for agricultural use. Compared to other countries the use of land for agriculture in Malaysia is very conservative, about 20 to 24 % of total land area of 33 million hectares. We choose to plant oil palm and rubber on the majority of the agricultural land of the country; that is the choice of the farmers and land owners. They could have planted soyabean or corn. Would that make soyabean or corn non sustainable?

Some NGOs and their followers even influence legislators to avoid using palm oil as a source of biodiesel. They also support well-known supermarkets or consumer products companies to avoid using palm oil products. This is obviously unfair as legitimately produced palm oil from Malaysia is denied access to their countrys' markets while their countrys' products continue to enjoy access to Malaysian markets. As a small developing country, we need to generate foreign exchange revenue from exporting palm oil to import goods from other countries. If our major agricultural produce like palm oil is denied access to certain countries, we will soon be unable to import other countrys' products for lack of foreign exchange.

A country in economic dificulty will not be able to care or pay for environmental conservation which is the original objective of the environmental NGOs in their campaigns against palm oil.

Malaysia is presently able to have a clear forestry policy to have about 50 to 60% of the country land area to be under permanent forest. Sustainable forest manangement systems are in place and laws are also in place to prevent the permanent forest areas from being converted to agriculture or other uses. We could easily announce a meratorium on deforestion of our permanent forest but this has to come at a time when the least developed state in the country has had the time and opportunity to develop their resources sustainably. For example, the state of Sarawak has lagged behind in agricultural development and less than 8% of the country is under agriculture, compared to the UK, a similar size country which has 70% of its land under agriculture.

As President of Brazil recently said at a meeting with 100 international legislators in Brazilia regarding deforestation and global warming "How can we ask the poor countries to take on the sacrifices the others didn't take on?", alluding also to the fact that industrialised countries are to blame after polluting the planet for centuries.

The Malaysian oil palm industry is working towards the need to produce certified sustainable palm oil by supporting the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) initiative. Other efforts are made to ensure the protection of wildlife habitats and biodiversity. Such efforts will take time, and need financial support. The Malaysia Palm Oil Wildlife Fund (MPOWF) is being used to help in this initiative. It is a matching fund that the MPOC will honour to match if donors come forward to contribute to finance a specified wildlife or biodiversity conservation project. Please contact us for more details and share the burden of maintaining a sustainable planet.