The Oil Palm

Belgium’s RTL Ignored The Facts On Palm Oil, Sacrificing Journalistic Integrity In The Process

Belgian TV station RTL’s programme on palm oil offered a good case study in scare-mongering and poor journalism. It was also testament to palm oil’s on-going struggle to get a fair hearing based on scientific facts and verifiable evidence.

Guest speakers on the programme included a representative of Greenpeace – an organisation that publicly opposes oil palm development – and a ‘nutrition specialist’, who had previously spoken out against the health attributes of palm oil. No academic expert on oils and fats, food technology specialist, industry representative or member of an independent environmental body, was invited to partake in the discussion.

This is unfortunate, as several erroneous allegations and misinformed comments were made about the health profile of palm oil and the environmental track-record of oil palm development.

Concerning health, erroneous allegations were made about the danger posed by palm oil because of its saturated fat content. Contrary to what was claimed, scientists have shown that there is no significant evidence linking the consumption of saturated fats to cardiovascular diseases. In addition, important information was omitted. Firstly, there was no mention of the fact that palm oil has been used to replace dangerous trans fats in consumer products. Trans fats have been shown to pose a danger to human health, as pointed out by the Institut de Cancereologie Gustave Roussy and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, who have linked trans fat consumption to breast cancer.

Secondly, when decrying the consumption of saturated fats, it was not mentioned that palm oil only accounts for a small proportion of the update in saturated fats in the diet of Belgian consumers.

Palm oil was also accused of being responsible for widespread deforestation. However, the reality is that the oil palm is the most land efficient of all oil crops. Its superior productivity – between 7 to 10 times greater than its competitors – means that less land is needed to produce the same amount of oil. Had a representative of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) been invited, they would have confirmed that based on their latest report, 60% of Malaysia’s land area remains under forest cover. By comparison, only 22% of Belgium’s land area is under forest cover. Malaysia’s commitment to preserving 50% of its land under forest cover in perpetuity, as well as ongoing efforts towards promoting conservation and safeguarding wildlife species – including the Orangutan – were also neglected.

This missed opportunity to present the evidence and facts in the debate on palm oil should be lamented; particularly by RTL’s Belgian audience, who deserve more informed reporting and a rigorous fact-based analysis on palm oil.

In its programme, RTL flouted all basic principles of journalism – including impartiality and an obligation to seek the truth. It did its viewers a disservice by using prejudices and demagoguery – contrived by opponents of palm oil – to build further doubt and confusion among consumers, aimed at spreading more fear through incomplete information on palm oil.

The need to address these untruths is not merely an academic exercise. Over 300,000 Malaysian small farmers depend on oil palm for their livelihoods, and programmes that spread misinformation on this product undermine their means of subsistence. Should RTL want to address the numerous shortfalls and lacuna of its previous programme on palm oil, it could begin by interviewing any informed scientist and academic working on palm oil, or alternatively, learning about the Human Faces of Palm Oil who earn a living thanks oil palm cultivation, and sharing their story.

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