Promoting a sustainable way forward for oil palm cultivation
Producers in Malaysia have made impressive progress in the sustainable production of the edible oil, which is traded in 160 countries
As one of the earliest traded commodities, palm oil has undoubtedly provided many benefits to health, society, the economy and environment, and yet the ubiquitous use of the staple oil-bearing crop has earned a controversial reputation of late.
The palm oil industry is hit on disparate sides, from health risks due to the oil’s higher saturated fatty acid composition, to threats of deforestation from expanding plantations influenced by heightened demands from the food, oleochemical and bioenergy industries.
These issues continue to haunt palm oil producers and upholders despite numerous research studies that continue to disprove the negative impacts of producing palm oil.
For decades, the Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry (MPIC) and associated agencies, Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) have been persevering to show the world the truth about palm oil.
Does palm oil cause grave harm, or is it nature’s gift to the world? Mah Siew Keong, Malaysia’s minister of plantation industries and commodities, invites manufacturers, consumers and all who care to know more about the oil palm to look at the country’s journey, unravelling palm oil’s varied contributions to health, the economy and sustainability.
Malaysia’s global palm oil ambassador
As the second-largest producer of palm oil, and a major exporter, Malaysia has greatly benefited from producing palm oil and its derivatives. Mah represents the interests of palm oil growers and small farmers, and is on a mission to promote a better understanding of the various economic, technological and environmental advantages of Malaysian palm oil and its products.
“We speak based on available facts, and the information we disseminate are all verifiable,” Mah says. “Palm oil provides many benefits, but we are also the first to acknowledge if there are problems that need solving. We apply a policy of continuous improvement. When an issue is pointed out to us, we do not sweep it under the rug. We take action and corrective measures to constantly improve the industry.”
To date, close to 20 million tonnes of palm oil are being produced in Malaysia each year. Valued at approximately 72 billion Malaysian ringgit (HK$133 billion) in 2017, the relatively inexpensive, golden-coloured edible oil is traded in 160 countries, and provides jobs and livelihood to more than half a million people in the country. More than 40 per cent of oil palm cultivation in Malaysia is owned by nearly 640,000 small land holders, and the industry has contributed to one of the largest poverty alleviation projects in the world.
Palm oil health benefits: truth vs myth
Palm fruit oil is consumed in more than 160 countries worldwide. It is used generally as a refined vegetable oil that can be purchased in any local store and incorporated in everyday dishes. Many of today’s food products contain palm oil such as baked goods, instant noodles, cake mixes, protein bars, potato chips, chocolate and other snacks.
While healthy diet advocates sometimes discredit palm oil for its higher saturated fatty acid content, studies, however, show palm oil and its minor constituents are linked to several health benefits including protecting brain function, reducing heart disease risk factors and improving vitamin A absorption. The potential to prevent stroke through palm vitamin E tocotrienols is also a hot topic.
One large meta-analysis of human dietary studies found that individuals who followed palm oil-rich diets compared to diets high in trans fats exhibited lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Moreover, palm oil, like olive oil, elicited blood cholesterol neutral effects in another set of studies.
“The outcomes of these studies demonstrate that if you consume palm oil at recommended levels of fat intake and in a well-balanced diet, palm oil does not trigger increases in blood cholesterol levels, and therefore does not pose a risk for heart disease,” Mah says, emphasising that his administration continues to tirelessly expose only research-backed truths regarding palm oil, and urges consumers to be educated against myths.
Journey towards sustainability
In recent years, the industry faced ethical concerns from various groups regarding palm oil production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and native communities. These groups have claimed that oil palm expansion is implicated in tropical deforestation, contributing to global warming and threatening tropical ecosystems and biodiversity. Notably, emotive campaigns with pictures of threatened orangutans have instigated strong negative reactions from consumers.
“To be accurate, our actions have ensured that the orangutan population in Malaysia is no longer compromised, and we have initiated plans to conserve the orangutans,” Mah says. “These efforts are our collective responsibility, and in the coming years, more will be done in collaboration with like-minded non-governmental organisations towards wildlife conservation.”
Mah believes that neither economy nor environment needs to be compromised. Oil palm cultivation can be managed such that it preserves a significant level of biodiversity, especially with proper management of riparian reserves, peatlands, satellite-aided spatial planning and the ministry’s commitment to zero-burning and zero-deforestation of virgin forests.
Demonstrating this commitment, Malaysia retains about 56 per cent of its forests, including some of the world’s oldest virgin forests, despite the country’s reliance on agriculture and forest resources for livelihood.
Oil palm plantations also add to the country’s total tree cover. Together with rubber, coconut and cocoa, Malaysia’s green expanse covers more than 70 per cent of the country’s 32.86 million hectare land mass. Observing strict regulations governing the expansion of oil palm plantations, Malaysia has instituted a land use policy that ensures economic development does not come at the expense of the environment and the nation’s biodiversity. The oil palm’s high yields ensure that Malaysian small farmers are able to prosper even with only 5.7 million hectares of land under cultivation.
These initiatives are also in accordance with certification standards and calls for the trade in certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). Early this year, Mah took the bold measure to force the whole industry towards certified palm oil production by making the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme mandatory. “By the end of 2019, Malaysia will meet demands such as the Amsterdam Declaration for CSPO through the mandatory MSPO certification,” Mah says.
“Over the years, we have created a very credible frontier for quality assurance, good agricultural practices and sustainable production of palm oil even before the talk of certified sustainable palm oil emerged,” Mah says. “Our response is not just marketing. We do a lot of overseas coaching through imparting technical and product formulation knowledge to the end-user, especially in developing countries. Apart from that, we also have environmental considerations, which we are rapidly putting into action.”
Backed by 100 years of responsible plantation practices on legally approved agricultural land, the Malaysian palm oil industry strives towards continuous improvement with annual investments of more than 250 million ringgit in research and development, and conservation through the MPOC-funded Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund.
“We actively collaborate with many leading institutions around the world and have a track record of many credible palm-based discoveries and innovations,” Mah says.
The way forward
Despite its high productivity, the oil palm poses many challenges and opportunities. One of Mah’s primary goals is to further improve yield per hectare from the current national average of four metric tonnes per hectare to at least six metric tonnes per hectare. Research has already mapped out the oil palm genome, and this knowledge will define the next generation of oil palm cultivars. Another challenge is mechanisation to reduce labour dependency on the field. The challenge has become tricky, and the ministry has offered a reward of US$1 million for viable mechanisation ideas and tools.
The large volume of biomass – more than 100 million tonnes annually – produced from palm oil processing presents another opportunity. In the past, these were mainly recycled as fertiliser for oil palms, but lately, new uses such as biochar and second-generation biofuels are being discovered. These generate cleaner green energy and produce fewer emissions than traditional coal or fossil fuels.
Even waste by-products like palm oil mill effluent (POME) can be transformed into an industry boon. Capturing POME and trapping methane emissions can power entire mill operations. The excess power generated can be channelled into local electricity grids while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Plans to build nearly 400 methane capture facilities are underway.
“Overall, we are investing in technology that aims to better utilise biomass and optimise efficiency throughout the palm oil supply chain,” Mah says. “We need to put in the right technology, and the right industrial framework to efficiently implement that in Malaysia. We are investing in evidence-based solutions that will propel us forward.”