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Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok is on a mission to make palm oil a household name. - NSTP/Zulfadhli Zulkifli

KUALA LUMPUR: People have a negative perception of palm oil because they are not aware of its benefits, says Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok.

She is on a mission to make palm oil a household name, especially since Malaysia is the world's second largest producer, with an export value of RM66.5 billion last year.

The New Straits Times sat down with the minister recently where she told us about how she wants to win over the anti-palm oil camp with love.

Question: Can you tell us about the government’s efforts to promote palm oil locally and globally?

Answer: Let me first tell you a story. I went to an event and spoke about the health benefits of virgin red palm oil, which is high in antioxidants, betacarotene and lycopene. After the programme, an aunty (older woman) approached me and asked where to buy palm oil. This is a homegrown product we are talking about. This shows the poor level of awareness among Malaysians. This is why I am pushing for the “Love My Palm Oil” campaign.

Q: How could this be when cooking oil is an essential item in Malaysian households?

A: I was as shocked as you are. I believe that parents play an important role in boosting their children’s awareness. We tend to take for granted things that we have in abundance. We use it daily, not just the cooking oil, but also other products. We just don’t talk about palm oil that much.

I believe that the promotion of palm oil should be included in the school curriculum. It has to start with us. How can we promote something we have little understanding or knowledge of?

Q: Have you discussed this with the Education Ministry?

A: Yes, but we were told that the next review of the school curriculum will only start next year. We will continue to push for it. It is important that schoolchildren understand the benefits of palm oil so that they can explain to others.

The recent incident of an international school carrying out an anti-palm oil programme was rather unfortunate. Here we are, trying to convince the people to support palm oil products, but some people are spreading negative information on it.

Q: One of the challenges is to change the perception that palm oil cultivation does more harm than good to the environment. What is your comment on this?

A: That is why we are working hard towards ensuring growers abide by the law and adhere to sustainable palm oil cultivation. I don’t have qualms to meet representatives from state governments, including those under the administration of the opposition on land title issues, to push for sustainable palm oil among smallholders through the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO).

One of the issues we have identified is land designated for other crops, such as cocoa and rubber plantations, have been used by smallholders to plant oil palm trees. We need state governments’ assistance to expedite the change of land use so that we can proceed with the certification. MSPO standards are guided by a comprehensive set of principles and criteria, which encompasses manag ement commitment, transparency, legal compliance, social and environmental responsibility, commitment to best practices and responsible plantings.

We have 2.45 million hectares of estates. Smallholders (those who own below 40.4ha) who are MSPO certified represent 42 per cent of the total planted area in Malaysia. We target 100 per cent compliance by the end of the year. We help smallholders obtain certification by grouping them into sustainable palm oil clusters, or SPOC.

The ministry and agencies, such as the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Malaysian Palm Oil Council and Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council, have engaged the international community, especially in Europe, to challenge their allegations and explain that negative anti-palm oil campaigns — including the “No Palm Oil” labelling (on products) — are misdirected, ill-conceived and discriminatory. We are committed to ensure compliance among oil palm planters and to prevent recurrence of past mistakes.

Q: You are admitting there were past mistakes?

A: That’s what I’m saying. Look at (past) haze incidents caused by farmers (who used slash-andburn tactics). The major incident (in 2015) occurred in Kalimantan, Indonesia. It affected us. It doesn’t help that international news agencies kept playing up the anti-palm oil sentiment.

We are working towards improving this through sustainable oil palm planting. However, we must look at our home before talking about the practice of our neighbours. With environmental effects, how can we convince the world that palm oil and wildlife can co-exist? This is what we are striving to do — educate the industry and the public.

Q: What sets Malaysian oil palm growers apart from those in other countries in terms of good cultivation practices?

A: Malaysia has a longer history than most countries in commercial cultivation of oil palm, with more than 100 years of experience. Many of our experienced planters work for palm oil companies in other producing countries.

Malaysian expertise in agricultural and palm oil milling and processing technologies have been adopted. They helped expedite the development of the palm oil industry in these countries.

Q: The European Parliament has threatened to ban the use of palm oil for biofuel, while Britain and Iceland announced that they would stop using products derived from the commodity. How will this affect our industry?

A: Europe is Malaysia’s second largest export market, accounting for 3,805,100 tonnes of palm oil and palm oil-based products with a value of RM9.89 billion last year.

Forty per cent of the export of palm oil goes to biofuel, while the remaining 60 per cent is used for food and other products. The ban on palm oil biofuel has a detrimental effect on Malaysian communities that depend on palm oil for their livelihood. They comprise more than 500,000 smallholders, who contribute to 40 per cent of the palm oil production.

Such a ban might intensify the negative sentiment towards the palm oil industry, especially from consumers’ perspective and has a snowball effect on other countries beyond Europe.

Q: Commodities aside, have you found the time to meet your constituents lately? You used to hold press conferences addressing municipal issues.

A: I try to fulfil all invitations by my constituents. I’m lucky that I live in the Seputeh constituency and not somewhere that I have to travel a distance to get to.

They (constituents) have been understanding with my work, but I try to meet them at least once a month. When I can’t, my assistants make sure that issues like flash floods and traffic congestion raised by the people are forwarded to the relevant authorities.

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