Comparing Palm Oil to Plastic: A Cry for Attention by Anti-Palm Oil NGOs

“Is Palm Oil the new Plastic?” asks a recent media article. Here’s the simple answer: No. The more detailed answer is: No, and it’s ridiculous to even suggest that. This is simply an attention-seeking stunt by anti-Palm Oil campaigners in Europe, mainly elites living in London, attempting to link Palm Oil to ‘socially-unacceptable’ products that the bobo London-and-Brussels Europeans consider ‘bad’ for your health and the environment (i.e. – plastic).

To this end, campaigns have been launched blaming Palm Oil for every conceivable wrong – no matter how far-fetched – all in the service of trying to make Palm Oil socially unacceptable.

Others have also been the victim of European attempts to negatively brand and shame their industries: banning plastic is one of the most recent European campaigns, led by NGOs.

This new attack on Palm Oil is being led by The UK Rainforest Foundation, an organisation that receives funding from the British government.

Unfortunately, the Director of the Rainforest Foundation, Mr Counsell, gets his fact wrong, which is unsurprising to anyone who knows the history of anti-Palm Oil NGOs. Where should we start with the errors? Let’s start from the beginning.

Error #1:

Mr Counsell remarks on the “carpets” of oil palm plantations. First, Malaysian oil palm plantations inhabit only 17 per cent of Malaysia’s land mass. Malaysia’s total planted area for oil palm is around 5.8 million hectares. Yet, look at the EU’s total area for oilseed production, which doubles this number, at 12 million hectares.

Second, the only “carpets” of any oilseed that Mr Counsell ought to be referring to are the over 606,000 hectares of yellow rapeseed fields smeared across the United Kingdom. Compared to palm oil, rapeseed requires far more pesticide and fertilizer, while the crop yields far fewer tonnes of oil produced, per hectare.

Error #2:

Mr Counsell claims “pretty much any wildlife living in the forest will have lost their habitat” due to harvesting palm oil. Where to begin with this untruth? The orang-utan is not losing its natural habitat due to palm oil, for a number of reasons. For starters, the wildlife Mr Counsell is referring to – the orang-utan – is a protected species in Malaysia. The latest assessment by the IUCN estimates there are over 104,000 orang-utan in Borneo alone.

Academic research has found that hunting, not oil palm cultivation, is “by far the greatest immediate threat to the survival of most of the region’s [Southeast Asia]” species. The facts here are simple, and backed up by detailed research.

Malaysia’s protected forest area is 22.1 million hectares, covering over half of Malaysia’s land area, at 54 per cent. This is incredibly high by global standards. The UN has confirmed Malaysian forest area is increasing, and has been since 2000. Malaysian forest area is greater than total land area of England, Belgium and the Netherlands, combined. Mr Counsell should think twice before pointing fingers at a country that is miles ahead of his own, and the rest of Europe, in forest protection.

Error #3:

Mr Counsell calls palm oil a problem when stating, “the problem is there are many derivatives of palm oil”.  Attacking downstream value-added businesses, many of which are owned by the small farmers themselves, is a disguised attack against the way of life of rural Malaysians.

650,000 Malaysian small farmers depend on palm oil to provide a stable livelihood for themselves, their families and dependents. Palm Oil has not been and is not a “problem” for Malaysia. For decades, cultivating oil palm has been the most successful poverty alleviator for Malaysians looking to provide for their families and dependents. For Mr Counsell to advocate stripping this crucial agricultural sector away from Malaysian families is effectively sentencing millions of Malaysians to a life of poverty.  How Colonial of him.

As Mr Counsell seeks to make Palm Oil the next Plastic, he may want to rethink his campaign and instead look to his countryside and those endless monocultural fields of yellow flowers that have displaced England’s countryside. Biodiversity in the U.K. is declining dramatically.

Finally, the British government is working to establish trade links with potential trading partners, including Malaysia and other Palm Oil producing countries. For the UK Government to fund groups like the Rainforest Foundation who then attack the very countries they want a trade deal with (whose major product is Palm Oil) is certainly not the best path forward to securing future trade. Any trade deal signed between the countries, including the potential UK accession to CPTPP, must benefit all sides. This means support for Malaysia’s primary agricultural commodity and export.

The EU Commission is preparing the ground for new ILUC and HCS criteria that will target Palm Oil in February 2019. European Ambassadors have already alluded to the fact that part of this effort will undoubtedly include a ban, or eventual phase out, of Palm Oil.

When the aggressive lobbying efforts kick in, spearheaded by anti-science NGOs, and protectionist domestic rent-seekers, will post-Brexit UK change its course and stand by Malaysia? Let’s just hope the UK government realizes this, too. There are many, many demands on UK taxpayers’ money: giving it away to fringe groups that attack your trading partners is surely the wrong priority.