People in France, a country known for its iconic fields of rapeseed, sunflowers and vineyards, heard a lot about palm oil last week. Following an advertising campaign by Systeme U, a French retailer, that misrepresents the sustainability and health benefits of palm oil, palm oil producers from the Cote d’Ivoire descended on the country’s capital to advance a complaint before a business tribunal for false advertising. At the same time, the Malaysian Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities Tan Sri Bernard Dompok met with business and government officials to express Malaysia’s concerns with the inaccurate claims being made against the crop.
French Attacks Against Palm Oil
Following a series of attacks by Western Environmental NGOs (WENGOs), retailers like Casino and Supermarche U sought to reduce their sourcing of palm oil. This followed similar trends in other markets where the perceived might of environmental campaigners led to concerns of reputational risk. But with palm oil playing a central role in the formulation of important products for the industry, such as Nutella, a popular spread widely consumed throughout Europe and the US, removing palm oil proved a daunting task.
Furthermore, the cost increases that would be incurred by switching to more costly vegetable oils limited the ability of these companies to carry out their stated commitments to removing palm oil. Meanwhile, companies like French-retailer Carrefour committed instead to the RSPO system, pledging to source RSPO certified palm oil by 2015, echoing similar moves in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Today, these French retailers are beginning to question their initial efforts to remove palm oil as a “knee-jerk” reaction that would harm their profitability, the nutritional benefits of their products and harm their supply chains. Following an advertising campaign by Supermarche U for their “palm oil free” products, palm oil producers in Cote d’Ivoire, a former French colony, filed an official complaint before a business tribunal declaring the advertising as mischaracterizing palm oil and harming their commercial interests.
Minister Communicates Benefits of Palm Oil
During a visit to Europe, Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Tan Sri Bernard Dompok met with business leaders and the French Minister for Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll at a roundtable meeting with media representatives to communicate the important role that palm oil plays in the French diet. Speaking with reporters, Minister Dompok stated that, “Some labels even say ‘no palm oil ‘, as if it were a product whose impact on health is uncertain. We believe that this mistrust of Europe vis-à-vis the palm oil is not justified and we are concerned about this situation.”
And there is good reason for French consumers to be concerned. Just this year, an independent study by nutrition experts in Europe found that refined palm oil is as healthy as olive oil, while unrefined palm oil (or “red palm oil”) is in fact healthier. With high levels of beta-carotenes and tocotrienols (precursors to Vitamin A and E, respectively), palm oil has significant health benefits. And with its equal share of saturated and unsaturated fats, it is an ideal ingredient for products that require a long shelf life. Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council who was in Paris with the Minister, explained, “This is the best oil for cooking available and is convenient for the food industry in terms of stability and frying. Finally, it is not carcinogenic.”
The Minister also explained Malaysia’s long-standing commitment to sustainable development, noting that the palm oil industry is a key contributor to reduced pressure on land in the country. With only 5 million hectares of land under palm oil cultivation, Malaysia nevertheless produces more than 18.9 million tonnes of vegetable oil (2011), much of it destined for global markets and contributing to global food security. Meanwhile, Malaysia remains committed to its pledge at the 1992 Rio Summit to conserve 50 percent of the nation’s forest cover, exceeding conservation rates in Europe.
But Malaysia is not sitting back and letting palm oil’s exemplary characteristics go ignored, the Minister noted. Instead, Malaysia and the nation’s palm oil industry are actively participating in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, a multi-stakeholder forum to demonstrate to consumers that palm oil is being produced sustainably. “We want to increase our exports to France certified oils,” the Minister said in Paris.
French Expert Supports Minister’s Comments
Recent comments by French experts also confirm the important role that palm oil plays in the French diet and sustainable development. Palm oil expert Alain Rival of the Center for Agriculture Research and Development (CIRAD) noted that palm oil remains the most profitable agriculture crop for small farmers, with producers earning between $2000 and $3000 per hectare. “No other crop has such high rates of return,” Dr Rival was quoted by Le Monde.