Pay no heed to critics of palm oil

Members of parliament recently raised the question of whether we are doing enough to address the endless criticisms levelled against palm oil. Such lines of questioning are a good sign that policymakers are showing concern.

They may have read about the European Union (EU) trade restrictions on our palm biodiesel. The EU's new import rulings are purportedly in line with its NetZero destiny. But we all know the hidden agenda behind it. Their local oils just cannot compete with the mighty palm oil, which dominates the global trade in oils and fats.

The truth is Malaysia has invested much to promote palm oil. The Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia, now known as the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), had technical advisory offices in the major markets for many years.

They worked to convince buyers, especially industrial users, on the technical superiority of palm oil in food and non-food applications. It is through their efforts that manufacturers of fats-based products around the world became convinced of palm oil's many technical advantages.

That led to the massive replacement of the traditional oils, especially soybean oil, in the global market. This partly explains why soybean oil was very sore with palm oil. Palm oil took over much of their market share.

That was the reason why the first major critics of palm oil hailed from the United States. The US then was the leading world producer of soybean oil. Now Brazil and Argentina produce more.

Those in the palm oil industry would still remember the late 1980s, when toxic advertisements were taken out in the US to demonise palm oil. This only came to an end when nutritionists in the US discovered the real poison.

Scientists there found evidence that the real cause behind the high incidences of cardiovascular diseases in the US was the high consumption of trans fatty acids. They were mainly coming from partially hydrogenated soybean oils, not palm oil.

Unfortunately, the trans-fat story could not stop the spread of the nutritional disinformation around the world. Consumers in many markets were led to believe that palm oil is not good for health. Some countries even included such narratives in their nutrition guidelines.

But the many nutritional studies funded around the world helped produce much evidence which clearly confirms that palm oil is as good if not better than the other oils. They were helpful in convincing the nutrition authorities to amend the rulings on palm oil.

It was when the negative narrative of palm oil nutrition penetrated households that a decision was made to establish the Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council, now renamed as MPOC. MPOC had invested much to put out the fires of hate. The no-palm oil campaign did not stop.

Instead, critics looked for other avenues to demonise palm oil. They found one in the environment. As the debate on climate change grew, critics conveniently picked on carbon footprint to paint palm oil as the bad boy.

Then they started spreading stories linking palm oil to deforestation. They went to the extent of even blaming palm oil for destroying the habitats of the orang utan. This spooked consumers in the West. It built more hatred towards palm oil.

This eventually persuaded the EU to restrict palm oil imports. That was when talks about paying lobbyists started. One wonders whether such lobby groups had a hand in creating the restrictive import rulings in the EU in the first place. In business we call it creating the demand for the products we offer.

The parliamentary debate was also consumed by the idea to engage lobbyists. Many in the palm oil industry doubt that would get rid of the problem. Some say it could worsen. In fact, after decades of being bombarded with all kinds of criticisms, many feel it will never end.

Some maintain that the goalposts keep changing, making it almost impossible to neutralise criticisms. The best option is to ignore them and instead continue telling the world about the many virtues of this wonder crop.

* The writer is a professor at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy, UCSI University

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