The Oil Palm The Oil Palm


The BBC’s upcoming documentary on orang-utans entitled Red Ape is being heavily advertised and trailed in the UK media. One of the documentary contributors, Dr Ben Garrod, has written a highly emotional – but highly unscientific – blog about the BBC’s work on orang-utans.

Unfortunately, the blog contains basic factual errors that are disproven with even a basic understanding of the latest scientific and international research. Of many examples, four stand out that require fact-checking.

Claim by Dr Ben Garrod and BBC: “It says ‘Palm Oil’ on the ingredients then that’s a choice you can make, but often it slips under the consumer radar as ‘vegetable oil’.”

Fact: This is incorrect. European Union law (EU Regulation 1169/2011) requires all vegetable oils to be specifically labelled: the term ‘vegetable oil’ alone is no longer allowed, by law. Palm oil – and all other vegetable oils – are individually labelled. Dr Garrod is scaremongering and misinforming the public.

Claim by Dr Ben Garrod and BBC: “We need to ensure that no more tropical forest habitat is razed to the ground to make way for endless fields of this almost uninhabitable monoculture”

Fact: Tropical forest is not being ‘razed to the ground’ in Malaysia. That is an established scientific fact, backed up by the official United Nations’ flagship Global Forest Resources Assessment study. The U.N. confirms that Malaysia’s forest cover is actually increasing. Over 54% of Malaysia’s land is protected as forest area.  Maybe Dar Garrod forgot to check out his backyard: there is not much forest left in the UK – 11% as a matter of fact.

This is not happening by accident: the Malaysian Government committed to forest protection at the Rio Earth Summit, and is delivering on that promise. Malaysian companies are focused on increasing yield and improving productivity. Burning of forest is illegal in Malaysia and is punished under strict laws.

Claim by Dr Ben Garrod and BBC: “The truth is that every year, there is less and less forest in South East Asia. The truth is that Palm Oil production can claim a lot of responsibility”.

Fact: This is wholly inaccurate and misleading. Malaysia’s forest area is increasing – as confirmed by the benchmark U.N. assessment.

Moreover, on a global level, palm oil is a tiny contributor to deforestation. The European Commission undertook a comprehensive research study that identified the largest drivers of deforestation: these are beef and livestock; soy cultivation; maize; and other oil crops. Palm oil is linked to only 2.5% of deforestation – beef is ten times larger, soy is more than double, and maize is also significantly larger.

The facts are clear: identifying palm oil as a major cause of deforestation is scientifically inaccurate. Dr Garrod is scaremongering, and misleading the public.

Claim by Dr Ben Garrod and BBC: “The truth is that orang-utans are on a knife-edge right now, staring into the precipice of extinction. Their numbers are dropping, their homes disappearing”.

Fact: This is a gross-oversimplification. First – orang-utan in Malaysia are not on the precipice of extinction: the latest NGO research and scientific population studies make this clear. Any claim of ‘precipice’ or ‘extinction’ is pure scaremongering.

Second, in areas such as Sabah, Malaysia, orang-utan numbers are stable, and some populations are growing. Why? Because Malaysia has made the orang-utan a protected species and enforces this law with tough penalties.

Palm oil and orang-utan co-exist successfully in Sabah, Malaysia. Since 1999 protected forest area has doubled in Sabah – and orang-utan numbers are stable. Over the same time period, the palm oil sector has expanded and has created prosperity for local people.

Dr Garrod’s insinuation that palm oil equals to orang-utan loss is provably untrue. The data are extremely clear. Dr Garrod is simply scaremongering, and misleading the public.

Here’s the facts:

  1. There are more orang-utan than previously thought.

Population estimates for the Sumatran orang-utan have more than doubled. In 2016 results of a population survey indicated that there are more than 14,600 Sumatran orang-utans in the wild. The previous estimate from 2008 had put the figure at 6,600. Environmentalists, however, did not take the news as positive. The response? “But with more orang-utans, there were also more to be lost.”

2. Any population decline can’t be attributed to palm oil alone.

In Malaysia, a large percentage of oil palm plantations are on Peninsular Malaysia.  Guess what BBC and Dr Gerrod: no orang-utan have ever lived in that region, so the palm oil from those areas clearly has zero impact on orang-utan.

A report published earlier this year states that conversion of forests to plantations – for pulp and paper, farming and palm oil – plays a very minor role in the decline of orang-utan populations. The report actually states that hunting is the leading and major driver of orang-utan population loss. The palm oil connection is a massive (and inaccurate) scare campaign, pushed by groups such as Greenpeace, who want to effectively ban palm oil use in Western countries.

3. Not all populations are under threat.

In Sabah, Malaysia, a number of orang-utan populations are stable. Some research has found that populations in some communities are increasing. More than that, these populations are in areas that are supported by palm oil plantation companies.  What does this mean? It means that if governments, companies and communities have the resources to conserve nature, they will. Lifting communities out of poverty is critical to conservation: palm oil is the greatest driver of poverty alleviation across South-East Asia.

4. Conservation strategies do work, and they can co-exist with palm oil.

Sabah, for example, has more than doubled its protected forest areas since 1999, from 839,385 ha to 1,906,896 ha. This has increased the area of orang-utan’s protected habitats by 75%; according to a study released earlier this year, estimated orang-utan deaths in Sabah have been relatively small compared with other areas. Sabah arguably has the strongest research and conservation programs for orang-utans. It has worked with other research institutions and NGOs.

Here’s a question on the mind of The Oil Palm: Will the U.K. Government stand with a minority of British activists and protectionist forces ahead of the vote to ban Palm Oil in RED or will she realize that hiding behind Brussels is over now that the UK has to chart her own path globally, and especially in South East Asia, following the Brexit vote?

Let’s see.