Palm oil is by far the most efficient oil crop known to man. It is also the most demonised by far. Anti palm oil campaigners have relentlessly accused it of first being unhealthy and then of causing wanton harm to the environment.
Such serious claims must be successfully countered if Malaysia's palm oil is industry to have a solid future. After all, sometimes perception trumps facts.
Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia (PORAM) chairman Jamil Haron says: "You can say all these anti-palm oil campaigning is a blessing in disguise -- it makes us realise we have to do something about the environment and make sure our efforts are made known."
Sustainable agricultural practices
For starters, Malaysia has already banned open burning some 20 years ago. "The haze caused by open burning is not our fault. But people don't say Indonesian planters cause the haze; they say palm oil plantations cause the haze. For anti-palm oil campaigners to keep accusing us of open burning is unfair. The licence of a planter would be revoked if they were to practice open burning in Malaysia," says Jamil.
As for deforestation, Jamil admits that planters initially planted everywhere, oblivious to the environmental impact. But today, there is a moratorium on oil palm plantation expansion.
"Malaysia currently has 5.84 million hectares of planted areas. The cap is 6.5 million hectares. And Malaysia is committed to maintain at least 50% forest cover. Today, most of the larger plantations are Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-certified. We agree that we need sustainable production," he stresses.
Malaysia has mandated certification for its entire palm oil supply chain by December 2019 through the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard. As of 30 June 2019, 2.45 million hectares or 41.9% of oil plantation and 451 mills or 54.1% (13,372 mt/hour capacity) of total mills in the country have been certified with MSPO. The areas include smallholders' 386,038 hectares of planted areas.
Safe for consumption
Meanwhile, the industry should proactively tackle the issue of 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) in palm oil, Jamil says.
The issue of 3-MCPD was first raised in 2008-9 by the European Food Safety Authority. Though 3-MCPD is present in most vegetable oils as well as animal fats, palm oil was singled out. Discrimination and protectionism by the West aside, the industry realises that when it comes to health, there can be no compromise. Perception alone can kill the industry.
Jamil shares that the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) has recently set the condition that a miller's licence will not be renewed unless it complies with certain requirements that address the 3-MPCD issues.
"We have to do more promotion, to create more awareness and boost the image of Malaysia's palm oil," declares Jamil. As such, he lauds the LoveMYPalmOil campaign, and hopes that the government would extend its promotional campaigns abroad.
Meanwhile, the perception of palm oil as a 'cheap oil' needs to be changed as cheap denotes inferiority. "Our products are of 'high quality but reasonably priced' -- that should be our promotion, not 'cheap'," he says.
Noting that there is only so much the Minister of Primary Industries and her Ministry can do, Jamil calls on all stakeholders, including Malaysian people as a whole, to support the industry.
"The challenges facing the industry are real and very intense, we have to collectively do something about it," Jamil declares.