Refuting imbalanced arguments with science-based facts and figures

SC Chin & Research writer

Modified 24 Jun 2020, 8:21 am

Palm oil’s positive health associations are supported by over 200 publications in high impact peer reviewed journals and the name Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram is no stranger to the research fraternity of this industry.

The chief executive officer of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has on many occasions presented his expert views on oils and fats, nutrition, biomedical science and even technical marketing of the palm oil industry. Being a fellow of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences and the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, and member of several international professional associations, Dr. Sundram shoulders heavy responsibilities amid a slew of anti-palm oil campaigns.

What is more challenging, Dr. Sundram is taking on a shoal of red herrings swarming from different corners of the world. His faithful weapon - a dragnet of scientific credentials. He communicates his science-based expertise both locally and internationally.

Crucial research findings

Without bogging you down with lengthy scientific explanation, one of Dr. Sundram’s research publications draws an important conclusion: Palm oil seems nutritionally superior to hydrogenated fats by not increasing Total Cholesterol (TC) and Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol – ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL-C) while sometimes even aiding in the increase of the High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol – ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-C).

Another important finding - palm oil and palm olein could act as important ingredients in food applications requiring solid fats without hydrogenation. In comparison to diets enriched by canola, rapeseed and olive oils, palm olein appears to be comparable in its ability to modulate the lipids and lipoproteins.

You can easily get hold of his abundant research findings online to enrich your understanding of the nutritional aspects of palm oil and its derivatives (by-products). In addition to having published extensively, Dr. Sundram has frequently shared his thoughts on topics critical to the palm oil industry, including matters pertaining to market expansion and policymaking.

Addressing anti-palm messages with factual inputs

While his mission is now geared towards the promotion and marketing of palm oil, he is also seeking a level playing field for the Malaysian palm oil industry. That’s not it. The man with over 36 years of research experience and 21 patents to his credit has to go to great lengths to restore the misperceived reputation of the industry.

“The anti-palm oil campaign is a tough nut to crack. What is even tougher is that we are a just a small group of people from the ministry (Primary Industries Ministry), agencies (including MPOC) and the industry, who are going up against a huge group of anti-palm oil campaigners from all over the world,” Dr. Sundram pointed that out.

The Malaysian palm oil industry is currently facing an uphill battle to refute imbalanced arguments on the industry led by Western anti-palm oil lobbyists made up of predominantly environmental activists and NGOs.

“If you go to the internet, for every positive message that we put up about palm oil, we get so many negative messages in return,” he continued, suggesting the viral spread of misinformation in cyberspace.

“Our challenge is to address those anti-palm oil messages through factual inputs to make sure the consumers, legislators, and even other oil and fat producers have only the true facts about palm oil. Even though it’s a big challenge, we have been doing a lot and we will continue to do even more.”

“So, there’s no question of giving up. We are ready for the challenge,” assured Dr. Sundram.

Promoting MSPO

Over the years, MPOC has always been at the forefront of promoting palm oil through websites, working visits, dialogues, seminars, discussions, consultations, education and policymaking. In addition to promoting the health and nutritional aspects of palm oil and products, disseminating fact-driven information on the ongoing sustainable practices is one of the key agendas.

The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme covers all aspects of palm oil production, from the field to the final product, embodying management commitment and responsibility; transparency; compliance to legal requirements; social responsibility, safety and employment conditions; environment, natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services; best practices; and development of new plantings.

The detailed statistics of the MSPO certified areas as of 30 April 2019 are published here.

Malaysia has pledged to achieve a 100% MSPO certification by January 2020 and so far about 30% of the 5.85 million hectares of oil palm plantation in the country have been successfully certified, according to a BERNAMA report published on 24 May 2019.

Calling for a more balanced stand in deforestation claims

Commenting on the widespread deforestation claims, Dr. Sundram said: “Western environmental NGOs presume that oil palm is a major driver of deforestation with Greenpeace being the most hard-hitting, directly aiming at the palm oil industry while ignoring the reality on the ground.”

“WWF, one of the founding entities of the Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), however, takes a more balanced stand by promoting certified sustainable palm oil – not boycott,” he added.

Interestingly, WWF claims that unsustainable cattle ranching (e.g. beef farming) accounts for 80% of the current deforestation throughout the Amazon. The Union of Concerned Scientists echoes that - converting forest to pasture for beef cattle, largely in Latin America, is responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year. This is more than half of tropical deforestation in South America, and more than five times as much as any other commodity in the region. More alarmingly, Faces of Palm Oil claims that livestock (beef) leads to 10 times more deforestation than oil palm cultivation. A study by United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also concurs that livestock industry is the main driver of deforestation (82.5%).

“The NGOs are also blaming soya cultivation as a cause of loss of forest, climate change, and so on. Its cultivation in South America especially, is also a driver of deforestation and the statistics are beginning to show up,” Dr. Sundram continued, hinting that as far as palm oil is concerned, it deserves a more balanced view on what actually constitutes deforestation and how sustainable cultivation can really make a difference.

Smallholders need time to get fully certified

He nevertheless acknowledges that the MSPO certification may need some time to reap its full benefits.

“Just like any other certification, to become part of the system, it is really very challenging. For smallholders, they need to be properly organized, properly informed, properly educated as well as assisted in their pursuit towards certification,” he said, while assuring that the extra work will only do the industry good.

“That is the important job of the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC), the custodian of MSPO,” he continued, reaffirming the smallholders that all the relevant government agencies particularly MPOC, will keep providing all the necessary support to assist them achieve the MSPO standards, including the most recent RM100 million grant (for MSPO certification) by the Malaysian government, in addition to a RM550 million soft loan for replanting.

“They (smallholders) have been cooperating and beginning to understand how important it is (the certification) for their livelihoods and I believe it is slowing changing the landscape of the palm oil industry. But again, it’s still a very challenging task because we are dealing with more than half a million of smallholders (approx. 650,000) in Malaysia alone,” acknowledged Dr. Sundram, clearly aware of the many challenges lying ahead.

Stop demonising the palm oil industry

Quoting an open letter by the Malaysian Estate Owners’ Association (MEOA), the continued demonisation of palm oil by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), food companies and retailers is discriminatory and not holistic in presenting the facts.

Attempts to denigrate palm oil will affect the livelihoods of millions of innocent and hard-working people, given the industry has a bright future beyond cooking oil that includes oleochemicals and biochemicals, pharmaceutical products and energy from its biomass.

Over the last century, the efficient and productive oil has helped feed the world and pulled millions of small farmers out of poverty.