The EU plans to phase out palm oil imports by 2030, largely based on sustainability concerns which the palm oil sector has denied. In May 2021 the World Trade Organisation (WTO) accepted Malaysia’s request to establish a panel to present its protests against this move, which Malaysian Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) YB Datuk Hajah Zuraida Kamaruddin revealed will commence in March this year.
Datuk Zuraida, who oversees the palm oil sector, also made an impassioned pledge to the palm oil industry earlier this month, at the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s (MPOC) Reach & Remind Friends of the Industry Seminar and Dialogue 2022, promising to battle against palm oil dissenters and defend the sector during the hearing in Brussels.
“The case has been filed, and we are going to provide complete dossiers [and research] regarding all that has been done in Malaysia regarding these accusations and to [refute them],” Datuk Zuraida told the floor.
“We will show them how they have not seen or heard what has really been [going on here in Malaysia], and only based their arguments on reports from NGOs or individuals, without having quantified or verified these, and without having come to us to [allow us to refute these] which is not fair as it is only a one-sided view.
“We will [proceed with] aggressive debates against these foreign pressures from places such as the EU and United States, [and] provide them with evidence – We will show that Malaysia is not a country to fool around with.”
Datuk Zuraida also stressed that the ministry and industry had already established responses to refute just about every point of contention presented by palm oil dissenters, whether these were health, deforestation, labour or any other sustainability concerns.
“There are many research findings already showing that palm oil is the healthiest edible oil available in the world compared to other edible oils, from heart health to hair growth – we just need to remind and drum this into consumers both locally and internationally to correct misunderstandings,” she said.
“As for deforestation, they keep making a lot of noise about this but Malaysia is in fact a developed country with policies and guidelines about deforestation, and we have also signed up for the COP26 deforestation policy where we will cap planting at 6.5 million hectares. Right now, we’ve only used 5.8 million hectares and still [have bandwidth] for planting and are also doing replanting so I can’t see why they are [disputing this].
“Regarding labour, we’ve already signed the International Labour Organisation protocol 29 on forced labour so what else do they want from us? We’re also going to do a government-to-government recruitment scheme with identified countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan and we know we must treat them well to ensure a steady supply of labour for the industry.”
Five-year modernisation promise and market expansion
In addition to pledging a fierce battle in Brussels, Datuk Zuraida also promised that modernisation would be forthcoming for the palm oil industry within a maximum of five years, which would reduce Malaysia’s dependence on foreign labour.
“Within the soonest three years and the latest five years, we should be able to come up with machinisation and automation technology for the palm oil industry to allow things to be less labour-intensive – we’ve already seen some promising technology,” she said.
“This would greatly reduce labour requirements, as well as financial strains on palm oil producers.”
In addition, Malaysia appears to have no intention of depending on ‘unfriendly’ markets such as the EU as a steady exports destination, despite the EU having been the largest palm oil importer globally for many years.
We previously revealed in an interview with MPOC that apart from traditional big importers such as China and India, Malaysia is also looking to expand its horizons to various other markets, which Datuk Zuraida has confirmed.
“Palm oil is the number one export commodity for Malaysia [and] we are looking at a lot of market expansion this year, including strategies to explore new markets [including] Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East where we aim to become palm oil market leaders,” she said.
“The objective is to gain market share in these places which are ‘more friendly’ to us, can relate more to us, and also know how to respect us, in that sense.
“So we will also do this aggressively – apart from aggressively debating with the [dissenters] at Brussels in March, we will also enter new markets with more aggressive marketing strategies and more aggressive negotiations, e.g. ensuring that all exported palm oil products have our Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification to position Malaysian products at a higher, more recognisable level.”