The Oil Palm

CEO of MPOC: French Senators Need to Do Their Homework

The campaign against palm oil in some parts of Europe, including France, has been multifaceted. There are the well-known environmental NGOs, many of whom have a long-standing enmity for palm oil, and who have conducted smear campaigns in the past.

Then there is the domestic protectionist European industry, which fears palm oil as a better, cheaper, more efficient alternative: often such companies and organizations will also conduct attacks on palm oil, or work with NGOs and others to spread misinformation through the media.

Thirdly, there are the politicians, who are often in league with either the NGOs or the local industry: these are the individuals who promote laws, amendments, discriminatory criteria, that is targeted at palm oil. Often the politicians know very little about the issue, and are simply doing the bidding of others (and hoping for some easy publicity as well).

An excellent example of this was seen in France recently. Two Green Senators – Aline Archimbaud and Jean Dessesard – tabled two amendments to a French Health Law. Both amendments were targeted at palm oil, and both had been obviously written by green campaigners. To be more precise, they were written by green campaigners who didn’t know the law or the issue.

The first amendment called for all products in France containing palm oil to be labeled as ‘palm oil’ (instead of the more generic term ‘vegetable oil’). The justification given was ‘transparency’.

That might seem sensible and reasonable, except for the fact that this law already exists in France. In fact, it exists throughout the European Union, and has done since December 2014. It was a law knows as the ‘European Food Information to Consumers Regulation’, which the Malaysian Palm Oil industry supported, as it brought transparency, but without being discriminatory (the labeling rules apply to all vegetable oils, not just palm oil).

The Senators were therefore demanding a labeling law which actually already exists. Either they didn’t know this – which is embarrassing for a Senator not to know the law of their own country – or they did know, and they were simply aiming for some cheap publicity. Either way, it shows their level of incompetence, and discriminatory attitude towards the developing world. Their amendment was defeated comfortably, by their more knowledgeable and sensible colleagues.

These brilliant Senators submitted a second amendment, calling for the introduction of a new tax on palm oil imports. How original of them. This has been tried before, known in the past as the proposed ‘Nutella Tax’. The Green Senators’ proposal was misguided for three main reasons –

  1. The Justification – the Senators make the old claim that palm oil is bad for health and therefore must be over-taxed. These old allegations have been found time and again to be false: scientific experts everywhere – including in France – agree that palm oil is a healthy, normal oil as part of a balanced diet. It is unscientific to claim otherwise.
  2. The Logic – The Senators argue that palm oil is taxed less than European oils (such as olive oil) by weight, and so palm oil taxes need to be increased. This is cunning, but unsound, logic. Taxes are not determined by weight (1 kg of olive oil or 1 kg of palm oil); they are determined by price. Olive oil is many times more expensive than palm oil – and so is taxed more in total (but as a price percentage, palm oil actually pays more tax currently).
  3. Repetition – The Nutella Tax has been tried before. It failed then, because of the two arguments above, and many other good arguments. The Senators have resurrected it, and it has failed again, for the same reasons.

To summarise, it is hard to explain why two French Senators are so unaware of the laws in their country – and embarrassing their country at the same time – that they tabled amendments asking for a law that already exists; and it is also hard to understand why they continue to promote a tax that has already been thoroughly discredited.

This latest episode does contain one useful lesson. The Malaysian Palm Oil community must continue to be vigilant in Europe, as such potential harms are ever-present, and could resurface at any moment.

By Dr Yusof Basiron, CEO of MPOC