THE debate on the impact of EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) on the palm oil sector in Malaysia has been in the headlines for several months.
Political decisions in Brussels were made in a manner that is discriminatory against Malaysian exports, and there has been scant effort to listen to the concerns of small farmers.
The EUDR has now moved from the legislative stage to implementation. The focus of the Malaysian palm oil industry is now on the ground-level efforts of implementation and compliance with a costly and wide-ranging set of criteria.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) will remain engaged with the EU authorities in the next 18 months before the EUDR is fully implemented.
The positive news is that the advancements in Malaysia's palm oil sector, especially the large-scale plantations, mean that country's sustainable palm oil supply chains have already met most of the EUDR's criteria.
Palm oil uses significantly less land than soy, sunflower, or cattle, and is more land-efficient, and less environmentally damaging.
Another important factor in Malaysian exporters' ability to meet the EUDR requirements comes in the form of the government-mandated Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard.
MSPO is now observed by 96 per cent of all plantations in Malaysia.
The MSPO provides an assurance to buyers and global consumers that palm oil can comply with stringent sustainability parameters to meet certified sustainable global demand.
This includes a ban on deforestation post-2019, a requirement for high conservation value, and environmental and social impact assessments prior to new planning.
Importantly, MSPO is more inclusive and accessible to smallholders, who form the backbone of the oil palm industry in Malaysia.
Farming oil palm provides a source of sustainable income for small farmers, helping to reduce poverty, which is in line with the internationally agreed upon UN Sustainable Development Goals.
MSPO deserves recognition by EU authorities for the role it will play in ensuring compliance with EUDR and driving environmental standards more broadly.
Too often, the implementation of regulations (including EUDR) is arbitrary and therefore open to accusations of bias.
Recognition of standards such as MSPO that follow international benchmarks for certification and accreditation can change this negative perception.
The MSPO standard is published by Department of Standards Malaysia, which is affiliated to both the International Standards Organisation and the International Accreditation Forum.
Certification is conducted by external accredited auditors, who follow technical standards that are international norms. It would be far simpler and fairer to endorse these systems that already meet the globally accepted technical yardstick.
The advent of MSPO is one part of the work the oil palm plantation sector and the government have undertaken to position Malaysia as a global leader in forest protection.
Malaysia's forest cover is approximately 55 per cent, or 18.05 million hectares of the total land area, which is more than the 50 per cent commitment that was made at the Earth Summit in 1992.
The expansion of oil palm plantations has now slowed down and has even reversed, with the total planted area falling from 5.8 million ha to 5.67 million ha between 2017 and 2022. Malaysian companies are committing to meet sustainability targets and actively addressing ESG concerns.
This positive and internationally recognised progress on sustainability standards has not been reflected in the EUDR's treatment of Malaysia.
Our concerns about the implementation period deserve to be addressed via significant engagement between the EU and Malaysia. These include the key question of small farmers.
The EUDR requirement for small farmers with more than four ha of land to provide geolocation 'polygons' is extremely burdensome.
Comments from EU officials such as small farmers simply "need to buy a smartphone" are disingenuous and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the challenges faced by rural communities in areas without reliable access to Internet service.
The livelihoods of more than 450,000 small farmers and their families are at stake; the discussion needs to be more understanding.
The final, and most important, challenges for the coming months are the implementation of the EU's proposed criteria for creating a "high-risk" list of countries that, in its view, are linked to deforestation.
It is evident to any reasonable observer that Malaysia — and any subnational authority — cannot seriously be considered high risk. The data on deforestation and the impact of MSPO are clear evidence of this.
A high percentage of oil palm plantations since 1990 has been from land converted from other crops as farmers have switched to oil palm for higher yields and financial returns.
However, we cannot be naive enough to believe that facts and data are sufficient to win the day.
What is needed is transparency of input and criteria from the EU about how the high-risk designation is decided, and a public commitment that Malaysia will not be included.
There are promising signs, especially with visits of senior EU officials to Malaysia for face-to-face discussions. Hopefully, this will continue.
Diplomacy means engaging and acknowledging the progress that has been made. Malaysia trusts that its concerns will be addressed, and palm oil trade will continue without any further barriers.
The writer is chief executive officer, Malaysian Palm Oil Council