The Star Malaysia

A sus­tain­able ar­gu­ment for palm oil

- PROF DATUK DR AH­MAD IBRAHIM Acad­emy of Sci­ences Malaysia UCSI Univer­sity

DE­FOR­ESTA­TION has taken cen­tre stage in the global dis­course on sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and cli­mate change.

The trop­i­cal rain­forests have some­how come un­der close scru­tiny. This may be be­cause they are the re­main­ing vi­able forests left to trap the green­house gases. Most tem­per­ate forests are long gone, dec­i­mated in the name of de­vel­op­ment in the West.

In the trop­ics, the oil palm in­dus­try has come un­der close watch from the so-called cham­pi­ons of de­for­esta­tion. This may have much to do with the ris­ing global de­mand for palm oil, thanks to its many at­tributes.

Palm oil con­tin­ues to dis­place other com­pet­ing oils from the world mar­ket. As the NGOs con­tinue to per­pet­u­ate the de­for­esta­tion con­tro­versy, palm oil has emerged as a soft tar­get. They keep ha­rass­ing palm oil de­spite the fact that the oil palm is not the driver of de­for­esta­tion.

We all know de­for­esta­tion, or the cut­ting down of forests, oc­curs be­cause of the need for coun­tries to de­velop. In the early years of de­vel­op­ment in the West, de­for­esta­tion was ram­pant to grow food, build houses and also to con­struct in­fra­struc­ture.

The same thing is now hap­pen­ing in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. But why is de­for­esta­tion viewed as neg­a­tive now? It was not a crime when the West did it years ago. And why blame palm oil for the de­for­esta­tion? Is it be­cause palm oil has taken a big share of the global oils and fats mar­ket?

The truth is, palm oil is not only help­ing meet the oils and fats sup­ply the world needs, but also pro­vides them at af­ford­able costs. Palm oil, be­cause of its com­par­a­tively higher yield and lower costs, is much more af­ford­able.

In­stead of bick­er­ing over palm oil, what is needed is a more com­pre­hen­sive study on how the oil palm crop fea­tures in the green­house gas equa­tion. It would be a pity if palm oil, which in­ci­den­tally is the most ef­fi­cient land-use oil crop in the world, is wrongly judged.

While the world needs more oil, the land to grow them is also grow­ing scarce. Cli­mate change will make it worse. The rain-fed oilseeds grow­ing re­gion of In­dia, for ex­am­ple, is now un­der in­tense pres­sure be­cause of the chang­ing pat­terns of the mon­soon. But the oil palm of­fers the best op­tion be­cause of its ex­tremely high yield com­pared to other sources. In fact, there is po­ten­tial to in­crease it even fur­ther with re­cent ad­vances made in palm oil ge­nomics through re­search at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Ad­mit­tedly, oil palm it­self is not spared the im­pact of cli­mate change. Palm oil sup­ply will suf­fer be­cause of cli­mate-in­duced wa­ter stress. On the de­mand side, palm oil may be mis­judged and may be wrong­fully pe­nalised as a re­sult of the neg­a­tiv­i­ties per­pet­u­ated by the NGOs.

Un­less these is­sues are ad­dressed, they will up­set the sup­ply and de­mand equa­tion for palm oil. Its price move­ment will be im­pacted.

But of more con­cern is that the world may be de­nied the ben­e­fits of a highly pro­duc­tive oil source. That ex­plains why the palm oil in­dus­try does not take the is­sue of cli­mate change lightly. That is also the rea­son why the palm oil in­dus­try has taken proac­tive steps to en­sure the sus­tain­able growth of the sec­tor. That is why palm oil should not be blamed for de­for­esta­tion.

Con­trary to the claims by some NGOs, the palm oil in­dus­try con­tin­ues to pay se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to land use plan­ning. But the con­cept of “zero de­for­esta­tion” as sub­scribed by the NGOs is not a prag­matic pre­scrip­tion.

How can a coun­try de­velop with­out open­ing up new land? Or would de­vel­oped na­tions pay de­vel­op­ing coun­tries for keep­ing their forests un­touched?

We have to be re­al­is­tic. Lately, there is con­cern that sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment may have been hi­jacked for other agen­das.

Some may have re­sorted to sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment as an in­stru­ment for trade dis­crim­i­na­tion. Worse still, there are groups earn­ing money un­der the guise of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment by cre­at­ing fear in some in­dus­tries that have the slight­est im­pli­ca­tions on sus­tain­abil­ity. The palm oil in­dus­try is one which has to fight hard to ward off such dis­crim­i­na­tion.

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