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Why palm oil does not deserve its bad press

By Tim Wilson - posted Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Recent campaigns against palm oil show non-governmental organisations are more interested in pandering to rich country donors than promoting sustainable economic and environmental development for South-East Asia's poor.

Following attacks from palm oil industry interests in November last year, the chief executive of NatureAlert, Sean Whyte, claimed "Non-governmental organisations don't want to see it (the palm oil industry) closed down and neither are they seeking a boycott of palm oil", but to see it prosper without doing "damage to the environment".

In making such claims, however, Whyte clearly cannot see the oil palm from the plantation.


In Australia and New Zealand, NGOs have convinced celebrities, television stations and taxpayer-funded zoos to campaign for government regulation requiring manufactured food products to label palm oil ingredients separately from vegetable oils.

Their objective of mandatory labelling is to encourage consumers to choose products that don't contain palm oil and effectively introduce a consumer boycott.

The NGO campaign has had some success, with Australian Senator Nick Xenophon recently announcing he would introduce legislation directing the bi-national regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, to require compulsory separate palm oil labelling.

With mandatory palm oil labelling in force, supported by consumer boycotts, food manufacturers will be faced with the business reality of either losing sales or switching to other oils in manufacturing to keep customers.

It's a decision confectionery manufacturing giant Cadbury made last year after NGOs identified they were using palm oil in their chocolate products and encouraged a consumer boycott, leading Cadbury to dump palm oil as an ingredient.

In Europe, NGOs have gone one step further and successfully lobbied to introduce Europe-wide regulations blocking palm oil biofuel imports unless they meet strict emission standards.


In developed countries, NGO campaigns often prey on the ignorance of well-intentioned donors who aren't confronted with the consequences of NGO policies on out-of-sight and, therefore, out-of-mind rural workers.

NGOs then add images of "cute" orang utans whose habitats are claimed to be lost to palm oil-caused deforestation, to encourage donors to open their wallets.

But garnering donor sympathy to fight the palm oil industry comes at the expense of the exports and livelihoods of the more than 40 per cent of Malaysia and Indonesia's smallholder oil palm growers who rely on the crop for their incomes.

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First published in the New Straits Times on January 16, 2010.

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About the Author

Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein and a former human rights commissioner.

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