EU lawmakers to look into palm oil discrimination

The following are written by my colleague Rupa Damodaran.

European Union (EU) lawmakers are increasingly convinced that Malaysia is on the same path as the EU on the sustainability of palm oil production, but would need more scientific data to support Malaysia's case.

Dan Jorgensen, who is the vice-chair of the environment, public health and food safety committee in the European Parliament, has promised to bring Malaysia's case on its discrimination versus other oils in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

"We don't want any discrimination at all of the palm oil sector, and we promised the industry here to help have discussions with the EU on this," he said.

Jorgensen, who was in Malaysia last week with two other Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Martin J. Callanan and Ole K. Christensen. They were impressed with the work undertaken by the government and the palm oil industry on sustainability efforts.

"People in Europe don't know how efficient an oil it (palm oil) is. I wasn't aware myself how much oil you can get per hectare compared with other oils - in that way it is discriminated against," he added. Oil palms on the average produce 2.5 times more oil per ha than rapeseed.

According to the RED which will come into force in December this year, biofuels must have greenhouse gas savings of at least 35 per cent and according to EU's calculation, the use of palm oil-based biodiesel failed the requirement as it achieved only 19 per cent. "We promise to look into the discrimination (claim) and, if there is, we'll do everything in our powers to change it. The numbers would need to be accurate and based on scientific data," said Jorgensen.

A social democrat MEP who hails from Denmark, Jorgensen said the EU is committed to the sustainability criteria as it helps mitigate problems of greenhouse gases, climate change, global warming and also biodiversity. "We're happy to hear that the industry acknowledges and respects it. They have been discussing how it can become more competitive on the sustainability criteria."

Jorgensen also suggested that the palm oil industry considers making entrapment of methane gas mandatory to increase the energy efficiency of Malaysia. Palm oil mills are currently encouraged to trap methane gas from palm oil mill effluent.

"We are convinced that the industry has been doing a lot and we expect it will proceed to become more sustainable because palm oil is important for biofuel as well as oil for food," he said.

The EU lawmakers recognised that palm oil has been the largest contributor of wealth to Malaysia and lends bigger potential compared to the other edible oils.

Christensen also lauded Malaysia for its achievements via oil palm planting in bringing the people out of the poverty bracket, especially in the Felda smallholder schemes. "Palm oil is not a bad thing as is being perceived by many people in Europe. We are gratified that Malaysia has strict laws in place to make sure no more rainforests are destroyed and expansion is on agriculture land," said Callanan.

Callanan also does not expect Malaysia to be affected by the RED in the short term as the use of palm oil for biofuel in the EU is still very small. 

Malaysia's ambassador to the EU, Hussein Haniff, who also attended the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, said more outreach programmes were necessary to enable the EU lawmakers to be convinced that Malaysia is not clearing rainforests to grow oil palm. There is also the tendency to lump both Malaysia and Indonesia, the top two producers of palm oil, together.

"We want an equal playing field and they are willing to take up on the verification of scientific data. From what we know, they have outdated data. In the process of review, if they find the default value is not 19 per cent, then it will be good for us to be on par with the other oils," said Hussein.
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Palm oil deserves equal trade opportunities 
 
TRADE in palm oil products should not be victimised by legislation in the European Union (EU), and in Australia, arising from the Western anti-palm oil campaigns, said the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive officer.
 
Tan Sri Yusof Basiron said that such legislation would be seen as a trade protection measure, which could force the affected countries to relatiate.
 
Malaysia's above average performance in habitat conservation of the orang utan and in greenhouse gas emission (GHG), as well as being a net sequester of carbon, deserves recognition, he said.
 
"We have earned our right to trade. We should not be asked to clean the mess (GHG emission) of developed countries," Yusof said in addressing the International Palm Oil Sustainability Conference in Kota Kinabalu recently.
 
He cited the refusal of Russia, a world leader in timber production and export, to comply with the EU-certified timber scheme. Likewise, palm oil should not be singled out for sustainability compliance unless other competing oils are also subjected to similar requirements.
 
GHG emission is not an issue as Malaysia is a net carbon sink country with more than 82 per cent tree cover provided by permanent forests and plantation crops, including oil palms, rubber, cocoa and coconuts.
 
Yusof said the Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should focus on campaigning for the reduction of GHG emission in their own countries, for instance, closing polluting coal mines.

"How is it that the UK produces 18 million tonnes of coal per year and the NGOs do not seem to notice the GHG emitted but they can detect burning of a few hectares of forest for agricultural conversion in Indonesia 10,000 km away?"
 
He pointed out that 66 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted a year from 18 million tonnes of coal produced in the UK was equivalent to deforestation of 378,000ha of degraded rainforests.
 
"This is more than double the yearly expansion of oil palm cultivation in Malaysia which in the past involved deforestation of degraded forest land zoned for agriculture."
 
Yusof warned that the Western-orchestrated palm oil campaigns could drive small oil palm growers in Indonesia and Malaysia to poverty even as the industry has been trying to raise the earnings of those in Indonesia to US$20 (RM66) a day from US$5 (RM16.50) currently.
 
The dangers of global warming should not be used to stifle oil palm expansion unless other GHG emitters in the developed countries are equally focused on mitigating GHG emission, such as taking steps to shut down their coal mines.
 
On the Sarawak peat paradigm, Ramesh Veloo, Paimin Selamat and Shahrir Abdul Aziz from Tradewinds Plantation Bhd listed zero burning, good water management and palm nutrition as important elements to consider in planting oil palm trees in peat soil.
 
Sarawak has the highest distribution of peat in the country at 64 per cent of the total of 2.58 million hectares. According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, 400,000ha of oil palm in the country is on peat land out of a total oil palm area of 750,000ha in Sarawak.
 
Tradewinds has 75,000ha of oil palm in Sarawak, with the crop grown in both mineral soil and peat soil.

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