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Sustainable palm oil? Not so fast…

 Posted by on September 11, 2009
Sep 112009

By Ashley Phillips
Green Right Now

Palm Oil, an ingredient found in most processed food, has been the subject of much environmental debate in recent years over its role in deforestation. It is commonly found in cooking oil and as an ingredient in cosmetics, soaps, detergents, and some plastics. Palm oil also has been considered for use in the production of biodiesel.

There have been many attempts to make palm oil sustainable. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was even established in 2003 to do just that. Unfortunately, six years later, there is still no system that can effectively trace palm oil beyond the processor to the plantation level. Companies that manufacture products using palm oil have little way of knowing where the controversial substance originated — which leaves the question of whether and to what degree palm oil is sustainably farmed up in the air.

This week, a press campaign run by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and aimed at putting the best spin on the industry ran aground when Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a magazine ad by the Malaysian boosters.

The headline of the MPOC’s magazine advertisement read: “Palm Oil: The Green Answer.”

As if that were not misleading enough, the ad made many more claims, such as:

  • “Palm oil is the only product able to sustainably and efficiently meet a large portion of the world’s increasing demand for oil crop-based consumer goods, foodstuffs and biofuel … Malaysia’s forest cover is certain to be maintained.”
  • “With the increased attention paid to oil crops, and oil palm in particular, a number of criticisms have been leveled at Malaysia’s palm oil industry, from accusations of rampant deforestation and unsound environmental practices to unfair treatment of farmers and indigenous people. These allegations – protectionist agendas hidden under a thin veneer of environmental concern – are based neither on scientific evidence, nor, for that matter, on fact.”
  • “In addition to its green credentials, Malaysia’s palm oil industry also plays an important role in the industrialization of the country and the alleviation of poverty, especially amongst rural populations.”

The advertisement violated substantiation, truthfulness, and the environmental claims sections of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Code, according to the group’s assessment.

“Although we acknowledged that some Malaysian palm oil companies had sought certification from the RSPO [the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil], we understood that the scheme and the certification of biofuels in general was still the subject of debate,” stated the Advertising Standards Authority’s Assessment.

They report explained that “palm oil had played a role in the development of the Malaysian economy in its shift from reliance on rubber and tin mining” and it acknowledged MPOCs assertion that this created one million jobs.

But it also noted that environmental and human rights groups had legitimate complaints about palm oil producers. Friends of the Earth, for instance, contends that palm oil production creates adverse social impacts by displacing indigenous communities affected by deforestation.

Issues over housing and land rights and low wages and poor treatment of workers “compromised MPOCs claim that palm oil had a societal benefit,” the advertisers assessment stated.

The advertising regulators concluded that the magazine ad must no longer appear in its current form.

There is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, at least not yet, according to the ASA.

Malaysian leader presses palm oil’s virtues

The MPOC fired back on Wednesday, complaining that the ASA was relying on FOE’s biased environmental conclusions and arguing that palm oil, being the cheapest vegetable oil, should be available to consumers, especially the poor.

“Today, the ASA ruled that an advertorial in The Economist highlighting the economic importance and environmental sustainability of Malaysian Palm Oil should not appear in any other UK media outlets. The ruling followed a complaint by Friends of the Earth about the advertorial. By censoring our message, this relatively small group of people is blocking the entire British public’s access to a diverse range of views and information about Palm Oil,” wrote the Malaysian group’s CEO Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Yusof Basiron.

“Consumers have a right to have information about the various products and services available to them and a right to determine for themselves which they want. Consequently, we are deeply concerned that the ASA is acting as an interested party in the public debate on palm oil rather than as a neutral and objective arbiter.”