Palm Oil Debate Betrays EU Commitment to Truth & Science

February 13, 2020

By Pierre Bois d’Enghien

As an agricultural engineer with more than 20 years of experience working in and around oil palm plantations in Africa and Asia, I am stunned by the shoddiness of the palm oil debate in Brussels. NGOs, which advocate against the production and consumption of palm oil, have lost sight of both science and truth, and EU political leaders appear to have no inclination to re-discover these core values.

It is more and more obvious that European Union officials and Members of the European Parliament, in particular, are content to blindly follow NGOs, obsessed with their fight against palm oil, demonstrating their total lack of technical knowledge. Worse, there is an unwillingness to listen to those who do have technical knowledge – because the science does not support the ideological crusade to which so many in Brussels have committed themselves.

There are of course multiple points of view about the wisdom of using edible oils as biofuel and these opinions deserve to be heard; on the other hand, it is exasperating to read and hear political debates based on erroneous data or the clichés disseminated by avowed anti-palm oil activists.

Political decision-makers are indeed entitled to their own opinions – and their own ideologies – but not their own facts.

The idea that palm oil is ‘higher-risk’ (as the EU’s RED Directive now states) than other, similar, oilseeds, is factually and scientifically incorrect. Actually, it is absurd.

Oil palm cultivation has the least impact on land use ( it requires 10 times less land area than soybean for equal production); it sequesters the most carbon (1.6 ton of C / ha / year) of any oilseed; it hosts the most animal and plant biodiversity; and oil palm uses the least amount of fertilizers and phytosanitary products: 0.4 kg of pesticides per ha / year compared to 5.8 on a soybean crop, which corresponds to 100 times less pesticides applied for the same amount of vegetable oil produced.

These facts are not in dispute: organisations from the United Nations, to the World Bank, to the French Development Agency AFD, quote these data. For many in Europe, the fact that oil palm cultivation is 100% free of GMO should also be an added bonus.

Palm oil also has a more extensive sustainability structure than any European oilseed. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) standard was developed in collaboration with growers, manufacturers, and NGOs such as WWF.

The standard was then improved; the Principles and Criteria are reviewed regularly and now include a zero-burning commitment (criterion 7.11) and a zero deforestation commitment (criterion 7.12) in line with the High Carbon Stock approach, an approach promoted by WWF and Greenpeace. Does rapeseed or sunflower have any similar accountability? No. And yet these are ‘lower risk’ oils, apparently. Absurd.

Sadly, the only logical conclusion is that this is an act of political protectionism.

Conveniently, palm oil from developing countries is considered high risk – and European crops such as rapeseed and sunflower are low-risk, despite lagging far behind palm on all of the aforementioned data points. 

A recent investigation by the New York Times highlighted this fact: how the EU’s protectionist agriculture subsidies are driving pollution and environmental destruction inside Europe’s borders – while at the same time EU leaders have the temerity to fly around the globe, lecturing others. To add to this underlying neo-colonialism, European politicians are showing cynicism towards the producing countries of Southeast Asia.

We have heard European officials purposefully mislead Indonesian small farmers, with claims that the EU does not intend to ban palm oil (when, in Brussels, Commission officials and MEPs openly gloat about a ban).

We have seen officials and MEPs even try to convince these very farmers that a complaint against the EU’s discrimination towards palm oil would not be admissible in the WTO. It is not only agricultural science – but also the rules of the international trading system – that some are willing to ignore, in the protectionist pursuit of banning a particular crop.

Moreover, Indonesia adopted a moratorium against forest clearing for oil palm plantations back in 2011. This was supported by many European nations, at the time. It is now a permanent part of Indonesian law.

Instead of undermining palm oil farmers, EU leaders have an opportunity to see the bigger picture, to support the tremendous progress countries like Indonesia have taken in the areas of biodiversity protection and conservation, and appreciate the tremendous increase in the standard of living gained by the populations of palm oil producing countries of Southeast Asia. After all, is this not supposed to be a “geopolitical Commission”?

Palm oil has lifted millions out of poverty (another fact that is not in dispute), and is key to achieving several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: 1. No Poverty; 2. Zero hunger; 3. Good health and well-being; 4. Quality education; 8. Decent work and economic growth; 10. Reduced inequalities; among others.

Can the EU rapeseed-sunflower agro-conglomerates really say the same? Isn’t it time to encourage palm oil producing countries such as Indonesia, and to respect them as interlocutors and partners?

Nearly 15 million tonnes of sustainable palm oil will be produced in 2019, at the request of Western customers and NGOs; this will be enough to supply the entire European market. As an agronomist, I know how difficult and expensive those sustainability transitions can be, in developing countries.  If, after all these efforts made in Indonesia and elsewhere, the demeaning attitude of NGOs and politicians persists, and threats and discrimination continue, then small planters and industries will simply get tired and disengage from sustainability. That does not help Europe’s green agenda, and it does not help the planet.

If the new Commission is serious about its geopolitical role; if it is serious about commitment to the UNSDGs; if it is serious about making progress on environmental issues (not just empty posturing), then the discrimination against palm oil from Africa and Asia needs to end.