Palm oil and reduced global warming

Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron, the CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council wrote this article.

AT a recent forum organised by the Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia (PORAM) in Kuala Lumpur, it was revealed that there was no moral case for Western Environmental NGO (WENGO) campaigns against palm oil.

Data indicates that the agricultural land occupied by the world palm oil industry is miniscule (1.56 per cent) compared with the total land allocated to growing grains and oilseeds.

Oil palm is the main agricultural crop of major producer countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where it occupies 13 per cent and five per cent of their land area, respectively.

Assuming that developing countries are allowed to use part of their land area for agriculture and plant the most profitable crops to provide employment, produce food and generate income, the data shows that there is no excessive over-exploitation of forests due to planting oil palm as a cash crop.

Nationally, both countries retain much higher percentages of forest as compared with developed countries.

If WENGOs claim that global warming is caused by loss of forests due to oil palm cultivation, it would be useful to know that oil palm share of world agricultural land is only 0.22 per cent. 

The share of loss of carbon stock (deforestation) caused by oil palm compared with total global agriculture is thus assumed to be 0.22 per cent. It is, therefore, morally unacceptable for WENGOs to demand palm oil-producing countries to reduce their share of agriculture, which accounts for merely 0.22 per cent of the world's agricultural area.

Even the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emission of global agriculture of 17 per cent is considered small compared with the burning of fossil fuel, which contributes 57 per cent of GHG emission. The carbon footprint of oil palm cultivation globally is, therefore, 0.22 per cent times 17 per cent of the total or 0.0374 per cent of global GHG emissions. This has no bearing on global warming, hence making it immoral to blame oil palm as a significant contributor to global warming.

Many other economic activities are responsible for the vast amount of GHG emission. These activities are accepted as part of the economic growth processes needed to sustain the world economy. Efforts to reduce GHG emissions should be directed at these economic activities as they are the main cause of GHG emission.

Curtailing the expansion of oil palm on the basis of its impact on global warming is, therefore, scientifically unjustified as the contribution is only 0.0374 per cent of global GHG emission.

If the loss of biodiversity is used as an argument to discourage oil palm cultivation, then ample forest is being conserved. The United Nations convention only requires 10 per cent of the country's land area to be kept as forest for conserving biodiversity, and Malaysia has far exceeded this by committing 50 per cent.

Despite the lack of convincing evidence to pin down the palm oil industry against global warming or biodiversity loss, both producer countries have given full cooperation to comply with the needs of stakeholders and WENGOs to produce palm oil sustainably. They have fully embraced the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to enable palm oil to be certified to meet sustainability principles and criteria.

The Indonesians have signed an agreement with Norway for a moratorium on deforestation while the Malaysian government has repeatedly announced its assurance of maintaining at least 50 per cent of its land area as permanent forest. Deforestation thus appears to be a non-issue.

To ensure a level playing field, it is timely that a similar certification for sustainability be required for other oils produced by various countries worldwide. Otherwise, it will be a clear reflection of the oil palm industry being victimised by being asked to comply to certification needs for sustainability when no scientific justification exists to allow the world to benefit from global warming mitigation or improved biodiversity.

Without premiums given to RSPO certified palm oil, it becomes a big burden for oil palm farmers to bear the added cost of certification when their rivals producing soyabean or rapeseed are not certified for sustainability.

Certifying the other (low yielding and land inefficient) oilseed crops for sustainability would at least contribute to a greater amount of carbon emission reduction compared with oil palm, even though the quantum of saving is still small compared with the carbon footprint of fossil fuel and other agricultural activities.

All evidence clearly shows that there is no moral ground for WENGOs to campaign against palm oil.

Unless the WENGOs can quantify and show that there are clear benefits relating to global warming or biodiversity improvements, or economic premiums for sustainable certified palm oil, then it is only a matter of time before producers realise that WENGOs only impose the no deforestation condition on palm oil but do not bother to do likewise on other low yielding crops which occupy vast areas of land.

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