The case against Australia's palm oil labelling bill

This is written by my colleague Rupa Damodaran.

CANBERRA: Malaysia raised its objection to Australia's Truth in Labelling-Palm Oil Bill yesterday, saying it is based on misleading claims and aimed at harming its largest agricultural export - palm oil.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron, who appeared at a public hearing together with other officials, said the biggest impact of this bill will be to single out palm oil as the only product in Australia to mandatorily be labelled for reasons other than health or nutrition.

"It will also hinder the Malaysian government's attempts to utilise palm oil as a means for alleviating poverty in our country," he said at the consultation regarding the Truth in Labelling - Palm Oil Bill here yesterday.

"I wish to object to this bill firstly because it seeks to classify palm oil as a single generic product based on the environmental impact of production methods without differentiating between country of origin... this is extremely misleading and defeats the purpose of the bill," he said in a testimony to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee.

Several questions on deforestation claims in Malaysia as well as palm oil certification were raised by members of the committee, which included independent senator Nick Xenophon, who moved for the bill in late 2009. The committee is due to report back to the parliament on June 16.

According to the bill, some of the principal issues include allowing palm oil to be listed as a vegetable oil on food packaging, which is considered misleading to Australian consumers.

The impact of palm oil production on wildlife and sustainable production of palm oil as well as the use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), are also the areas up for consideration under the bill.

Yusof, who is also representing the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities, said: "Truth in labelling should be driven by health issues, not political expedience, which is behind some of the campaigns revolving around this bill," in reference to moves by Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund.

The bill and the campaign, which has been associated with it, can potentially lead to a loss of jobs and the livelihoods of some 570,000 farmers.

As pledged at the UN Rio Earth Summit, two decades ago, to keep at least 50 per cent of its total land area under forest, Malaysia has exceeded the target with 56 per cent of its land under forests. For every hectare of oil palm, the country preserves 4ha of permanent forest.

The Sabah and Sarawak state governments have gazetted large tracts of virgin jungle known to contain higher populations of orang-utans as wildlife sanctuaries, national parks or forest reserves.

On the bill's recommended use of sustainable palm oil or CSPO marking to indicate sustainable oil as a differentiating factor between countries or modes of production, Yusof said it would be highly costly for smallholders. Currently, 43 per cent of oil palm plantations are owned by smallholders.

Apart from Yusof, other Malaysian officials were High Commissioner to Australia Datuk Salman Ahmad, Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen from United Plantations Bhd and Datu Vasco Sabat Singkang of the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra).

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