Greenpeace activists who last week prevented a tanker loaded with palm oil from Indonesia from mooring at Rotterdam port and earlier on Nov. 17 illegally boarded the same cargo vessel off Spain in protest at what they described as an ecologically damaging commodity could be regarded as saboteurs of the Indonesian economy.
It is one thing to campaign to influence public opinion against unsustainable farming practices, but it is against the law to unilaterally and arbitrarily block the passage of a legal shipment of palm oil.
Hence, the demand by the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo) and the associations of palm oil companies and smallholders for the government to take stern measures against the Indonesian chapter of Greenpeace is fully justifiable.
The campaign against palm oil has long been riddled with misperceptions, amid claims that palm oil has caused massive deforestation in developing countries, notably Indonesia, the world’s largest producer.
The debate over palm oil has not always been based on straight facts and has often been biased in favor of noisy demands from environmentalists who are unable to suggest workable solutions to the industry’s multilayered complexity, which essentially boils down to the issue of poverty-alleviation.
Meanwhile policymakers in Europe, under pressure from vegetable oil industry associations and green campaigners, have rushed to build up regulatory barriers against palm oil products entering their markets.
For almost two decades, palm oil has been a target for European agricultural interests, lawmakers and NGOs, with the European Union seeking to block the commodity both as a food ingredient and energy source, citing environmental and human rights violations in its production.
So vigorous has been the negative campaigning against palm oil that we, along with several scientists in Europe itself, have concluded that allegations of deforestation, human rights and violations of workers’ welfare are a subterfuge to protect EU producers of vegetable oils such as soybean, rapeseed and sunflower, which have become increasingly uncompetitive.
Another misconception is that palm oil is bad for health as its extracts can increase heart problems. But Bill Wirtz, a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center (CCC), cited in a recent article the findings of studies by the School of Medical Science and Technology of the Indian Institute of Technology in 2009 and the World Journal of Cardiology, that palm oil’s effect on blood cholesterol is relatively neutral when compared to other fats and oils.
The CCC claims to represent consumers in over 100 countries and monitors closely regulatory trends in Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other hotspots of regulation, and informs and activates consumers to fight for greater choice.
Even with healthier nutritional alternatives, for the sake of a fair market, consumers should be allowed to freely choose which fats they want to consume. It is certainly ill-advised to put labels on one particular product or campaign for a boycott on another.
Banning palm oil in biofuels and severely restricting it in foodstuffs and other consumer goods, as the EU plans to do, while global demand for vegetable oils steadily increases, could even increase hazards to the environment and biodiversity.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) records that palm oil now accounts for over 50 percent of global vegetable oil consumption and has increasingly been leading the market as a result of the much lower yields of other vegetable oils, produced mostly in temperate-zone countries.
The latest report of the Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned in a report released at a recent international forest conference in Oslo that completely replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would be even worse for the environment.
The key factor, the report said, is that the palm oil yield is nine times higher than those of other vegetable oils. Hence other vegetable oils would require up to nine times more land than oil palm to produce the same volume of oil.
Palm oil is currently produced from just 10 percent of all farmland dedicated to growing oil crops, yet accounts for 35 percent of the global volume of all vegetable oils and half of the world’s population uses palm oil in food. So if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry, crops will be required.
Palm oil is widely used in food, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel, and is cheap to manufacture. Growing oil palm is about 10 times more effective than growing soybeans or rapeseed. Such a productive and profitable crop would not be easy to replace.
It is understandable for Indonesia to proclaim that palm oil is here to stay. Palm oil contributes around US$20 billion to Indonesia’s annual exports and employs over 8 million workers in the estate-cultivation and processing industries. More importantly 40 percent of the estimated 12 million hectares of oil palm estates are owned by about 2 million smallholders.
Therefore international cooperation is urgent to help producing countries such as Indonesia develop new oil palm seeds with higher yields so that production can steadily be increased on the same acreage of land, thereby preventing encroachment into primary forests.
Over the past 15 years the government has subjected the industry to tougher rules designed to make the commodity sustainable economically, socially and environmentally. Certainly the improvement is still an ongoing process as it not only involves crop cultivation but is part of broader poverty-alleviation programs and the empowerment of millions of smallholders.
In fact, oil palm development is currently among the most transparent industries as its practices are periodically examined and monitored by auditors and constantly scrutinized by green NGOs. Palm oil producers are now held to Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standards and those of the international multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.