Anti-Palm Oil Campaign Dressed Up As ‘Certification’

The demonization of palm oil has stepped up a notch with the official launch of a new anti-palm oil certification scheme in both the UK and in Australia. The International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Program (IPOFCAP) claims that it will certify products as being ‘palm oil free’ through an auditing process.

When we first read the press release, a few questions immediately presented themselves.

Why does this ‘palm oil free’ scheme need to exist? The short answer is that it doesn’t. Ingredient lists exist already. Having a ‘certification program’ for a non-ingredient is superfluous and faintly ridiculous.

So, then, why does it exist? The only logical reason this new IPOFCAP scheme exists is because the individuals behind it want to publicly attack oil palm growers – most specifically 600,000 small farmers in Malaysia whose families depend on oil palm for their incomes and livelihoods. It is that simple. The IPOFCAP exists to bring harm to the lives and incomes of small farmers in Malaysia, and across the developing world.

The second question to consider is – why on earth would any company sign up?

Is there a sustainability rationale for putting this logo on your product? No. Palm oil certification schemes already exist – both governmental and multi-stakeholder. This is simply not serious by comparison.

Perhaps consumer demand is a reason for a company to sign up? No. Palm oil remains the world’s most-popular cooking oil, and many of the best-selling products in the UK and Australia contain palm oil.

Could there be a publicity or PR benefit to joining in? Again, no. It’s an unknown scheme marketed by an unknown (and largely secretive) group of individuals. Even the launch has attracted very little attention.

There is only one reason that any company would sign up to participate– they want to support an attack against palm oil small farmers. If a company wants a proper certification scheme, those exist already. If a company signs up to IPOFCAP, however, it has made a conscious decision to promulgate untruths and harm against small farmers.

Let’s take a closer look at the victims of this new campaign.

The victims are from rural villages all across South-East Asia. In the mid-twentieth century these areas would contain some of the least-developed communities in the world. The agricultural revolution made it to those people primarily through oil palm. Malaysia’s poverty level has reduced from 50% then, to under 5% today. However, by no definition are these communities rich. They could not compete with wealthy Australian and British supporters of the IPOFCAP scheme, in terms of lobbying expenditure or corporate power. Is IPOFCAP trying to push those farmers back into the poverty they had previously escaped?

It is clear, then, who is harmed. The natural next question is – who does it help?

Well, it could help giant multinationals – such as Casino in France – in their anti-palm oil lobbying campaigns. It could also help rich European farmers who milk taxpayer subsidies in order to fund lavish (but highly unproductive) EU oilseed production. (If palm oil use is reduced, companies will be forced to turn to the uncompetitive EU oilseeds and consumers will pay higher prices).

To summarise – the potential beneficiaries are large, rich, Western multinationals, landowners and lobbyists. The potential victims are 600,000 small farmers in Malaysia, and millions more across Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere. IPOFCAP have essentially designed a plan for inverted wealth transfers: taking from the poor to give to the rich.

Outside of the obvious moral bankruptcy, there are a couple of more self-interested reasons why companies will not sign up to the IPOFCAP scheme.

First, many such companies already work with existing palm oil certification schemes. RSPO rules, for example, prevent companies from undertaking actions that undermine sustainable palm oil. Clearly, signing up to IPOFCAP would be contrary to the spirit of RSPO rules.

Second, many of the major multinational brands have significant operations in Malaysia, Indonesia and other palm oil-producing countries. We’re talking about retailers, food producers, snack brands, cosmetics manufacturers, etc. Signing up to a campaign for ‘Palm Oil Free’ certification is not a sensible activity for companies operating in palm oil-producing countries. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have stated they will oppose anti-palm oil measures by Western companies and governments. Why would a multinational risk its market share in SE Asia for a ‘certification’ scheme that no-one has heard about? The likelihood is that most companies won’t take the risk of offending the consumers and governments in South-East Asia.

The Oil Palm has written many technical analyses of new developments in the palm oil marketplace in the past – from IISD, IDDRI and IFPRI; from the Innovation Forum to the Kiel Institute to Columbia University; and many, many more.

IPOFCAP is not serious enough to deserve such an analysis. It is a spiteful campaign against small farmers, pure and simple, and should be treated as such by all concerned.

#Policy News