Can Malaysia's palm oil sustainability certification change negative perceptions?

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

How to obtain Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certitication. ©MPOCC
How to obtain Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certitication. ©MPOCC

Related tags Palm oil

Becoming the first country to certify the sustainability of its palm oil will boost exports and undermine 'unfair' labelling practices, a leading industry official has told us in an exclusive interview.

Malaysia has put in place a mandatory programme for its entire production and supply chain to be certified by 1 January 2020.

It is hoped this will help offset widespread negative perceptions about the industry.

Anti-palm oil campaigners have longed claimed health and environmental harm, allegations that have affected consumer behaviour. So much so that food manufacturers in some countries such as France, Australia and the UK have placed a “No palm oil” label on products.

Malaysia has contested this label “because it misleads consumers​”.

“It plays unfairly with their sentiments. It doesn’t discriminate between responsibly-produced palm oil or otherwise. And it implies there is a health concern where none exists,” ​Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong has said.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) CEO Dr Kalyana Sundram told us there was no real scientific evidence to indicate that the consumption of palm oil poses a health risk at recommended amounts.

The MPOC states palm oil is a source of carotenoids and vitamin E, balanced fatty acids and other important fat-soluble micronutrients, and decades of research also point to its benefits in supporting cardiovascular, brain and liver health.

In terms of environmental impact, Dr Sundram said all palm oil producing countries cannot be in the same basket, and Malaysia has been making effort to ensure that the impact has been minimal.

“About 56% of the country is still under forest cover. Any oil palm plantation is subject to a battery of local and federal regulations. All these are checks and balances that the Malaysian palm oil industry operates within international norms,”​ he said.

Dr Sundram admits there is still much to be done to “rebalance the debate on palm oil”​.

Assurance and quality control

“We invest extensively in research to understand every single aspect of palm oil and, once scientific research yields the result, we use the science-based results to convey the facts to consumers. Yes, we need to do more and will continue to do so,” ​he said.

Under the new Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification, all aspects — including growing, harvesting, milling, processing and shipping — will be evaluated and traceable, giving palm oil importers and consumers the assurance of getting pure, authentic, non-GMO palm oil.

Palm oil is Malaysia’s number one export. Dr Sundram said that Malaysia produced about 19.2 million tonnes of palm oil in 2017, with an estimated value of RM70b.

Malaysian palm oil is sold to about 160 countries and areas around the world including India, China, Asean and the Middle East.

According to the MPOC, Malaysian palm oil makes up more than 50% of the palm oil imported into the US. It estimates that palm oil can be found in about half of the products in US supermarkets.

The Council believes that mandatory certification of sustainability will enable US food manufacturers to “shift the conversation to palm oil’s numerous benefits”​ in the wake of negative narrative.

Europe is another big market, to which only certified sustainable palm oil can be sold.

Out of the total 5.72 million hectares of oil palm cultivated in Malaysia, 40% is owned by more than 640,000 smallholders. About $13m has been set aside to help them.

Nonetheless, with numerous parties involved in the Malaysian palm oil industry and an extensive network within the supply chain, some would question if the deadline is realistic.

Said Dr Sundram, “We know the plantation houses, which are well-organised, will have no difficulty in meeting the timelines. The smallholders are being organised into small clusters, with technical assistance provided by the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) and Malaysian Palm Oil Board. The approach is to train pools of smallholders and to certify them in the small groups,” ​he said.

“We do need to put in a lot of work on the ground to achieve this.”

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