Despite Winning Wars, Palm Oil Still Needs Fight To End Consumers’ Prejudice

Palm Oil. Winning the War But Losing the Media Battles

  • The palm oil industry is winning the war in demanding its place in a sustainable market.
  • Government policies including Malaysia’s commitment to sustainable palm oil production and Indonesia’s wider commitment to Forestry and Land Use (FoLU) are being acknowledged in major markets.
  • Demands to place other vegetable oils under the same standards has seen victories as soy is being highlighted as an unsustainable source for the EU’s biofuels program.

Global markets are grappling with a shortage of cooking oils. The Ukraine war accentuated the problem when Ukraine, as a major exporter of sunflower oil, saw its exports stopped. This led to a global surge in demand for palm oil which triggered an export ban by Indonesia to keep local prices affordable.

But as global supplies ease with the export of Ukrainian agricultural products and Indonesia’s lifting of its export ban, the long term threat posed by climate change threatens food security in Europe. The global relief felt when Indonesia lifted its palm oil export ban is evidence of the importance of palm oil to keeping inflation at bay. Even the most notorious of anti-palm oil companies have back-pedaled their positions and started to use palm oil again in their products.

As premium markets for palm oil in the EU and US open up in the global recovery, the increased demand for palm oil in 2022 may not last despite its status as an affordable cooking oil.

Two key market factors stand in the way of becoming a consistent supply of vegetable oil that is less exposed to the threats of climate change.

  • First factor is the pending legislations in the EU and the US to impose restrictions on the import of commodities that are linked to deforestation.
  • Second factor is the ingrained prejudice held by European and American consumers against palm oil.

Legislative factors are less of a concern to palm oil producing countries. Communication efforts by the intergovernmental organization, Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC) have successfully argued that palm oil is a needed component for the sustainable development of countries. This has led to government-to-government initiatives like USAID and the Joint Working Group on Palm Oil which will be able to resolve any concerns that palm oil importing countries have.

Media a Threat to Eroding Palm Oil Sustainability Credentials

In order for these G2G initiatives to have any credibility for consumers in the EU and the US, palm oil producing countries cannot sit on judicial recognitions alone. There is an ingrained prejudice held against palm oil by consumers in Europe and the US which will require extrajudicial efforts on the part of palm oil producing countries to remove.

This will require some dirty street fighting in media, especially social media, which palm oil producing countries media campaigns must engage in. One of the key challenges for palm oil producing countries is to remove the root of all the misinformation on palm oil. This one claim against palm oil will continue to erode any confidence in the sustainable production of palm oil until it is resolved on social media.

“Every hour(?) every minute(?), 300 football fields of rainforests are destroyed to make way for palm oil”

In 2013, Rainforest Foundation US/ Global Citizen made a claim that:

“Every minute, an area the size of 300 football fields of the world’s most dense, species rich forest is destroyed to create palm oil plantations.”

The claim was ridiculed by Alert-Conservation which published a piece in 2014, on football-fields of deforestation written by Erik Meijaard

Erik’s criticism of the exaggeration has been largely ignored as online media like One Green Planet claimed shortly after, that Palm Oil is Causing Football Fields Worth of Flames.

One Green Planet did tone down the exaggeration from “one minute” to “one hour” but it still does not make sense. If the editors at One Green Planet had done the math, they would have realised that reducing the exaggeration from “one minute” to “one hour” still meant that Indonesia would have been completely covered in palm oil at the time of their writing in 2016.

So how did this outrageous claim on palm oil start?

Online information indicates that the “300 football fields lost to palm oil” started the way rumours always start. Information gets twisted and bloated from one whisper to another.

The oldest reference found online is from a screenshot of WWF Australia’s Palm Oil Factsheet which slyly mentioned the United Nations to support their claim that 300 football fields are cleared every hour in Malaysia and Indonesia for palm oil.