No excuse for local firms to manipulate no palm oil labelling rule

AFTER the catastrophic conflict in Gaza, the whole world has been calling for all kinds of boycotts of products.

This is on account of the feeling worldwide that the atrocities the Palestinians have endured over the past few weeks go against all definitions of human rights, as championed by the so-called civilised developed nations.

Some have even described the situation as genocidal. Product boycott is not new. It happens every time people are unhappy about something. This can be related to unfair business practices or even sanctions against a country as a result of some conflicts.

Whether it works or otherwise is not certain. But at least such boycott sends a clear message of the people's discontent with issues. It is a form of protest which would hopefully lead to actions.

It has been observed that not all boycotts are fully justified. Many are rooted in the effort to silence competition. Here at home, the palm oil industry has been subjected to a similar unfair, albeit subtle, boycott practice to discredit palm oil.

But it is common knowledge that such campaigns are driven by product owners who have lost out to palm oil in the edible oils competition. Palm oil, thanks to its versatile character, poses serious competition to other oils.

As usual, the anti-palm oil lobby would spread negative narratives about palm oil. In earlier years, they claimed palm oil was not good for health. But that has mostly disappeared because of the science produced by credible nutritionists which had said otherwise. Now, the new narrative attacks the environmental aspects of oil palm cultivation.

Despite all the efforts to certify the palm oil business on sustainability, such narrative keeps popping up. A bigger concern for Malaysians is that lately we have seen some local companies also riding on the no palm oil labelling.

The latest that has come to our attention is a chocolate products business which uses that negative message on its product label. This is despite the fact that there is already a ruling in place to make it illegal.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has taken the right approach to send reminders to that company. I remember those days working for MPOC – back when it was called MPOPC - very often such letters did not have much effect.

They were just ignored, especially for companies based overseas. We had to deal a lot with companies out of Australia then. But for local companies, we view such unfair practices as much more serious. Local companies are supposed to know what the palm oil business means to our economy.

They must know how oil palm cultivation has contributed to the rural economy of the country. If they have points of criticism against the industry, these can be raised through the proper channels.

The industry is always willing to listen to grouses based on science and factual evidence. Local businesses should not be seen as being exploited to further the interests of the competitors of palm oil.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) has all the facts, based on scientific research, related to palm oil nutrition and how it performs in relation to the environment. It is unbecoming for our own local businesses to indulge in such biased practice. Such discriminatory practice has more justification for us to call for a nation-wide boycott of the competitors' products.

As Malaysians, we need to be aware of what is going on in the world. The truth is, we do live in a very competitive world. Attempts to discredit competition will not stop. But we must know the facts.

Those claims which lack scientific evidence and which appear suspicious should be treated with caution. In the case of palm oil, all the evidence provides proof that the palm oil industry is investing in serious efforts to manage the industry sustainably.

The many sustainability certifications that the industry has welcomed should be enough to convince everyone that the issue is not taken lightly. And for a local business to not be aware of that is indeed serious.

At the end of the day, we want all to make sure that there is fair competition so that consumers are not short-changed.

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

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times


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