For the love of the redheads?

This is written by my colleague, Rupa Damodaran.

“What's in a label?” one may ask. Aplenty, especially when it has to do with saving the redheads of Borneo, an affectionate term for the orang utans by Australians.

It is quite heartwarming to know how the people rally behind their green leaders to save these redheads in Indonesia and Malaysia through a pair of doleful eyes and a crypt message which says an orang utan dies every two hours due to palm oil activities.

The war against palm oil will never let up for environmentalists as long as their strong allegations are not countered or nipped immediately. Events over the last fortnight over the disputed Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling — Palm Oil) Bill 2010 are leading to a trade war between Australia and Malaysia and threaten to make things awkward between both governments.

Malaysia did a great job in convincing the Senate committee, which heard and questioned why palm oil should be the only oil to be singled out. But when political strength wrestles rational scientific arguments, Malaysia — as one of the top global producers of the palm fruit oil — could only watch, haplessly.

Already adopted by the Senate, it has to be passed in the House of Representatives where the government rules with the support of four independents.

The Greens Party, which supports and has strong political influence on the minority government, wants the Bill passed to enable products containing palm oil to be singled out for attack.

It is already a triumph for the party for the little effort put in to convince the masses. Whether this will help the redheads will be anyone’s guess.

World trade expert Alan Oxley puts it that Australia is enacting into law, a measure which has no justification except to create another way for Greens pressure to “green mail” producers in global markets not to use palm oil.

For the Malaysian palm oil industry, the workload defending its practices and the country’s golden crop will only get heavier once the law is enacted.

No doubt Australia’s imports of palm oil (estimated to be about 130,000 tonnes a year) are not as significant as other advanced markets, but the new legislation would endorse it as an ideal test decision for others to take it up to markets in the European Union or the US.

Malaysia must double its publicity efforts to let the rest of the world know its sustainable practices help towards conserving the orang utans and also the interests of smallholders.

Most of the Australian masses are unaware of the efforts put in by, for instance, Wilmar International - the world's largest palm oil company - to help the Borneo Orangutan's Survival Foundation and central Kalimantan government to provide protection for the orang utans and their habitat. Some 800 orang utans are waiting to be located to new habitats.

Also, Malaysian palm oil companies are the leaders in producing certified palm oil through their sustainable agricultural practices.

One can only gather that the Malaysian story needs to be retold many times, especially on the palm oil's benefits in feeding the global population. Industry players must be more forthcoming in supporting the conservation of the environment and wildlife.

Australian zoos have jumped on the bandwagon to pinpoint the endangered species in Malaysia and Indonesia and are whipping up support from schoolchildren and communities.

Just as taken aback with the sudden turn of events in the Senate was Australia's closest neighbour, New Zealand. It felt that the Bill may have also breached the joint Australia New Zealand Food Treaty as no consultation was sought.

The food and grocery councils of both countries are most concerned with independent Senator Nick Xenophon's Bill.

For the Australian or New Zealand consumers, it is the higher price of products that will hit them hard as high costs of changing the food label between AU$10,000 and AU$19,000 each (RM32,300 and RM61,370) would filter to the grocery shelves.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron has warned that the trade barrier game can become very messy if Malaysia and Indonesia decide to follow the labelling Bill.

He argues that this will be a discriminatory use of the labelling law against the interest of palm oil, and will violate the World Trade Organisation provisions, compelling both producers to lodge a complaint.

If we are considering the path of trade dispute, it will not be the first the country has seen. It will be the third, according to an official of the International Trade and Industry Ministry. The first case was a clear-cut one involving Singapore regarding the imports of polyethylene and polypropylene, but it did not go through the full process of setting up a panel, ending with the withdrawal of the complaint.

The second one involved the dispute over the US import embargo on Malaysia's wild harvested shrimps as the US alleged that our harvesting methods killed turtles. The case was eventually ruled in favour of the US.

Leave a Reply