The Myths & Facts of the EU Parliament Development Committee’s Report on Palm Oil

This week the European Parliament’s Development Committee (DEVE) voted on a draft report: “Transparent and accountable management of natural resources in developing countries: the case of forests.”

The report is aimed at eventually imposing a ban on Palm Oil imports into Europe used in the food supply chain.

The report is riddled with errors, omissions and misinformation.  It’s necessary to identify and correct these errors, one by one, to highlight the totality of their misinformation.

MYTH 1: Agriculture is Responsible for 80 per cent of Deforestation Worldwide.

FACT: The report attributes 80 per cent of global deforestation to agriculture.  The EU’s own research states it is closer to 55 per cent. This is similar to the European Parliament’s previous claim that Palm Oil was responsible for 40 per cent of global deforestation has no basis in fact.

MYTH 2: Deforestation Emissions Contribute to around 20 per cent of Total Emissions.

FACT: The ’20 per cent’ attribution of greenhouse gas emissions to deforestation was constructed in the early 2000s and based on very loose methodologies. It was often quoted by NGOs. Better data and better methodologies have emerged since then, as has a better understanding of the carbon cycle for forests. These days the estimate is between 10 and 12 per cent according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, IPCC Assessment Report and the EU’s own Joint Research Centre.

MYTH 3: ‘Forest Risk Commodities’ is a Widely Accepted Term.

FACT: It’s a term made up by European NGOs. The draft report refers to ‘Forest Risk Commodities’ at various points. Forest risk commodities was coined by the Global Canopy Project, a UK-based NGO. The term has no standing in international agreements or in international law. It is defined by GCP as follows:

“Globally traded goods and raw materials that originate from tropical forest ecosystems, either directly from within forest areas, or from areas previously under forest cover, whose extraction or production contributes significantly to global tropical deforestation and degradation.”

But the term is not officially defined anywhere in European Union communications. In an earlier critique we have pointed out its fundamental flaws.

Some key flaws are:

  • The “forest risk” commodities identified – palm oil, soybean, beef and timber – do not cause deforestation. In Asia and Africa, for example, the major driver of deforestation is local and subsistence agriculture.;
  • When first developed in 2013, the concept made a series of assumptions about the commodities associated with deforestation that no longer hold up now that more advanced data is available;
  • Similarly, the overly-simplistic and catch-all term ‘Forest Risk Commodities’ completely sidelines that fact that deforestation is a result of incredibly complex variables that are oftentimes dependent on local context.

Global Canopy’s decision to focus on ‘tropical forest ecosystems’ is prejudicial. People that live in tropical areas, especially around the equator, tend to produce Palm Oil.  They also tend to be poorer. Not to mention, Global Canopy is funded in large part by aid agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the German and Norwegian Governments. An organisation developed by and funded by Europeans’ aid money is being used to lobby the European Union on how to shape deforestation policy in an anti-development direction. This is a clear conflict of interest.

MYTH 4: Only a European Palm Oil Certification Scheme Can Solve the Problem.

FACT: The report singles out Palm Oil voluntary certification systems for allowing “deforestation, forest degradation, illegitimate appropriation of land and other human rights violations” to take place.

That’s just plain false.  First, as the EU has pointed out, Palm Oil’s deforestation footprint is significantly lower than that of beef, soybean and maize. Singling out palm oil has no basis in evidence.

Land rights and human rights violation do not happen because of Palm Oil. Tightening up palm certification will not provide solutions for these problems because neither Palm Oil nor Palm Oil certification is their cause.

Malaysia has strong laws and regulatory systems regulating the Palm Oil industry.  The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard has been launched on a voluntary basis, and will become mandatory by 2019.  Furthermore, much of the Malaysian Palm Oil private sector as well as many small farmers, including organized smallholder associations, have adopted the RSPO scheme (and other specialist schemes, such as the German ISCC).

The mere suggestion that a European Union-forced certification scheme targeting Palm Oil is necessary is patently absurd. Notwithstanding that such a scheme would bring about unequal treatment of Palm Oil, and violate the EU’s commitments to the WTO.

MYTH 5: The Flawed 33 Documents Cited by the DEVE Committee.

FACT: The authors show little regard for the EU’s trading partners in developing countries. At the beginning of the document, the authors cite 33 documents supporting their claims. Some of them – such as the Consumer Goods Forum – have no legal standing whatsoever; it is a voluntary agreement between corporations.

But there is only one set of documents that will provide guarantees for the EU’s developing country trading partners: the World Trade Organization Agreements.

The WTO Agreements are there to prevent the kinds of actions that the DEVE Committee is trying to implement, specifically unscientific and politically motivated barriers to trade.

There is one other document that isn’t referenced: the Agenda of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development from 2012, which was an internationally agreed communique on sustainable development. That document states that any sustainable development policies should:

  • “Not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade, avoid unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country, and ensure that environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems, as far as possible, are based on an international consensus.”

Again, this fundamental document – which is a core text for anyone who really cares about alleviating poverty and creating wealth for the poor – is not referenced.

This report makes it clear there is little regard for sustainable development or international consensus.  Despite all its platitudes on international development, the DEVE Committee is clearly interested in only one thing: pushing a politically-motivated anti-Palm Oil agenda, and propping up uncompetitive EU oilseed industries.

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