Making palm oil sustainable

This is contributed by Datuk Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid, science adviser to  Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Razak.

THE virtues of oil from olives, sunflower seeds, canola, soybean and corn are familiar to consumers in the West and the affluent countries of the Middle East and North Africa. That's not the case with palm oil, even in those large markets for the product.

That may be a vestige of the bitter attack on the palm oil industry mounted in the 1980s by the soybean lobby, complete with self-serving claims that palm oil could harm human health. Malaysian scientists, including Tan Sri Augustine S.H. Ong, then attached to the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia, countered with authoritative documentation that, in addition to its numerous industrial uses, palm oil is indeed a versatile, nutritious ingredient.

Now, the palm oil industry is once again confronted with new challenges, possibly more formidable and multi-faceted than the earlier one -- that of the need to be environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability in the palm oil industry means making minimal impact on the environment from the time of planting through to processing the oil in the mills. Today, the Malaysian palm oil industry has largely got it right, but sustainability concerns linger among some, mainly Western, consumers and well-meaning non-governmental organisations.

Two recent episodes illustrate this concern. One is the proposed Australian "Truth in labelling -- palm oil Bill" which has since been rejected by its House of Representatives Economics Committee following the intervention of the Malaysian government and Malaysian Palm Oil Council.

Lately, even some well-meaning members of the Girl Scouts of America are mounting a campaign for their organisation not to use palm oil as an ingredient in their world-famous Thin Mint cookies as "oil palm cultivation destroys the habitat of orang-utans". Such concerns have to be addressed to ensure the crop remains the golden egg-laying goose we would always like it to be.

Forest clearing, the agronomic practices used to cultivate the plants from seedlings to the fruit production phase, processing the fresh fruit bunches into oil at the mill -- all relate to sustainability.

A sovereign country like Malaysia is fully entitled to open up its forests for agriculture or settlement, of course.

Our second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, started the Felda scheme in the 1960s, a man ahead of his time as evidenced by the aspirations articulated in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed some 40 years later.

A primary objective of the MDGs is poverty alleviation, a mission that Tun Razak expressed in those days with his slogan, "land for the landless; jobs for the jobless".

The "Felda Story" remains a textbook example of best-practice poverty eradication, according to renowned Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.

So, while it is true that oil palm plantations mean forest displacement, Malaysians are also fully aware of the need for balance. Malaysia is committed to managing forests in a sustainable manner, not just for economic reasons, but also for maintaining environmental stability and ecological balance.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Malaysia has approximately 62.3 per cent of its territory under forest cover -- 20,456,000 forested hectares in total. At the Earth Summit in 1992, Malaysia pledged to keep at least 50 per cent of our land mass under forest, including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves. That promise is still intact today.

Within these protective areas Malaysia can honour its commitment to maintain suitable habitats for our flora and fauna, including the iconic orang-utans in Sabah and Sarawak.

With the current focus on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, it is instructive to note that, relative to other oil producing crops, the oil palm emits up to 10 times more oxygen and absorbs up to 10 times more carbon dioxide per hectare per year, figures far superior to any crop planted in temperate countries.

Spearheaded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), the Malaysian oil palm industry is making a serious effort to meet the challenges of sustainability. Last year, MPOB released the Malaysian Palm Oil Sustainability Manual, which spells out the principles and procedures to be adhered to by estate and mill managers and other workers along the supply chain to achieve sustainability.

For example, plantations today routinely employ barn owls to reduce rodent populations rather than chemical baits, a perfect means of biological pest control. Chemical weed killers and pesticides are minimally used as the oil palm is a hardy plant largely unaffected by pests and diseases. There are standard operating procedures of waste management at the oil palm mills in accordance with environmental quality acts and regulations.

In response to the urgent and pressing global call for sustainably produced palm oil, a global organisation, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. The organisation is still "a work in progress" and has not matured into a one-stop clearing-house for the trading of sustainable palm oil.

Malaysia is already mulling the idea of establishing its own "Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil" standard, a move which is similarly being considered by Indonesia. Such moves can only be applauded, for in the long run, the benefits not only accrue to the palm oil industry and this country, but to the whole global community.

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