Debunking the COVID-Palm Oil Link Conspiracy

Over the past few weeks there’s been a deliberate effort by the save the rainforest types to connect infectious diseases and the COVID-19 virus to the palm oil industry.

They’ve been supported by a plethora of “mainstream” news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and more fringe outlets  and politicians that have implied tropical deforestation – and commodities, primarily palm oil – are the source of the current and past pandemic crises.

This is a huge distortion. Here’s why.

In isolation, the logic is not unreasonable. Expanded human presence – such as economic development – in habitat areas increases the likelihood of human-animal crossover events. This is not in doubt.

What has no logic or fact is blaming specific commodities or actions for the crossover events. This smacks of opportunism and political exploitation of a crisis to further their environmental and geopolitical agenda.

Short History Lesson in Zoonosis & Environmental Transition

First, the general consensus on transmission of the COVID-19 is that it has a virus ‘reservoir’ in bats, and that it may have crossed over to humans via another host, such as a pangolin. This transmission is likely to have occurred at a wet market, which has since been re-opened with the WHO’s consent.

Second, there have been three zoonotic coronaviruses in recent history: SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV in addition to the current virus. SARS-CoV was traced to horseshoe bats in Yunnan. MERS-CoV has been attributed to a crossover event with domesticated camels.

Third, more broadly, zoonosis (the transmission of viruses from animals to humans) cannot simply always be linked to an environmental change such as deforestation, and certainly not to deforestation for a specific commodity. Anyone who has worked with domesticated animals understands that zoonosis is always a risk on farms and in agriculture.

Anyone who has recently read up on the basics of zoonosis understands that any number of diseases – influenza, HIV, rabies, toxoplasmosis – are subject to zoonosis.

The best summary of this comes from a landmark 2005 paper from Johns Hopkins University:

“Understanding the process of emergence requires analyzing the dynamics of microbes within wildlife reservoir populations, the population biology of these reservoirs, and recent changes in human demography and behavior (e.g., hunting, livestock production) against a background of environmental changes such as deforestation and agricultural encroachment.”

In other words, environmental changes are the backdrop, not the cause.

Eric Lambin recently published a new paper on crossover events involving primates in Africa. Lambin published arguably the best paper on the causes of deforestation in the tropics. In the new paper, he states: “Certain human behaviors provide opportunities for direct contact between humans and wild nonhuman primates (NHPs), but are often missing from studies linking landscape level factors and observed infectious diseases.”

It’s easy to point the finger at the broader environmental changes, but the key element to examine is the human interactions that actually enable the crossover.

Fourth, blaming deforestation or a particular commodity serves the purposes of organisations seeking to make themselves relevant during the current crisis. But it is a dangerous oversimplification. Stating that ‘deforestation causes pandemics’ makes as much sense as saying ‘palm oil causes deforestation’. Both deforestation and pandemics are ignoring the reality that such an outcome is the result of complex series of interactions between humans, societies and the environment.

A Case Study in Distortion

Finally, and related to the above, there are clearly some distortions going on that attempt to place the blame on palm oil using tenuous logic.

A recent piece in National Geographic stated the following:

“in Liberia forest clearings for palm oil plantations attract hordes of typically forest-dwelling mice, lured there by the abundance of palm fruit around plantations and settlements. Humans can contract Lassa virus when they come into contact with food or objects contaminated with feces or urine of virus-carrying rodents or bodily fluids of infected people. In humans, the virus causes hemorrhagic fever—the same kind of illness triggered by Ebola virus—and in Liberia killed 36 percent of infected people.”

There is some careful language here. There is no ‘direct’ blame on palm oil, but the linking of the sentences is a clear move to implicate palm oil: why else would the journalist link palm oil, Lassa virus and a high mortality rate?

Just so we’re sure, let’s look more closely at what the WHO has to say about Lassa virus in Edo State, which is the largest oil palm area in Nigeria – and Africa.

“The Lassa virus is transmitted to humans mainly through handling infected rats, food or household items contaminated by the rats’ urine and faeces. The virus can spread between people through direct contact with the body fluids of a person infected with Lassa fever, as well as contaminated bedding and clothing.

“Community members are being advised of a range of preventive measures including washing hands regularly, storing food in containers with lids, keeping their homes clean and tidy to discourage rats from entering and cooking foods thoroughly.

“Garri, which is made from cassava tubers, is a staple food in this part of Nigeria. Traditionally, families have left the crushed cassava outside in the sun to dry out. During the sensitization sessions, participants are encouraged to dry garri through frying over a hot stove, rather than in the sun.”

No mention of palm oil.

A study that appeared in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene noted that transmission was more likely to occur in a domestic setting, rather than in a cultivated field, and this is due to the rats being attracted to food – of any kind – in and near houses. More to the point, another study in Vector Borne Zoonotic Diseases noted that when food in cultivated areas was scarce, rodents are more likely to go to houses in search of food, increasing transmission.

The National Geographic story is irresponsible at best; the National Geographic brand has credibility , and with that should come more responsibility. Tenuous links between palm oil and pandemics will be distorted and retweeted – as they have already.

This is the very definition of Fake News.

But more to the point, this approach gets in the way of finding a rational, clear – scientific – explanation of existing and future pandemics.

Next week we’ll look at the link between COVID-19 and Food insecurity resulting from European regulations that put politics over science.

Wilmar Walks from HCSA

Wilmar has surprised many members of the industry by withdrawing from the High Carbon Stock Approach Steering Group.

Wilmar – and in particular the company’s sustainability lead, Perpetua George – has been a champion of the HCS Approach. Wilmar pushed hard for HCS to be brought into the RSPO Principles and Criteria at the RSPO RT in 2018.

The reporting on this development has been slightly unclear, so we’ll walk through the facts of the case.

In 2017, Wilmar was appointed as a co-chair of the HCS Steering Committee alongside Greenpeace.

The HCS Steering Committee rules require that a grower representative be a co-chair.

In 2018, Greenpeace objected to Wilmar’s eligibility as co-chair, but Greenpeace did not raise this formally. The objection could therefore not be resolved through regular dispute resolution channels. Further, Greenpeace objected to all major grower companies being eligible as co-chair.

Wilmar also pressed the group for more transparency and better governance, particularly for financial transactions. There was a specific request by Wilmar for “the development of guidance for payments made to HCSA invited guests such as government officials.”

This latest move may be considered sour grapes on Wilmar’s part. But Wilmar is right to query what value it currently gains from participating in and financially contributing to the HCSA group.

HCSA is now part of RSPO P&C and Wilmar financially underwrote its development, and politically lobbied for it to be part of RSPO; it is therefore being implemented by the company. Why should the company pay even more for the privilege?

There are other questions that will need to be answered going forward.

Which grower group will be represented as co-chair? If all plantation companies are objected to as co-chair, then it will by default fall to a smallholder group. This is potentially risky, as smallholder groups are generally susceptible to political and financial pressure.

What will happen to the group more broadly? HCSA has ambitions to expand its guidance to include smallholders. This requires financial support. Getting smallholders over the line within RSPO has been difficult; it will face further barriers without HCSA guidance for smallholders.

HCSA also has ambitions to expand its presence within other certification systems and for other commodities. Again, this requires money. Will other companies be prepared to put up the funds?

Greenpeace has criticised Wilmar publicly over the move, suggesting that this is an attempt by the company to ‘shirk’ commitments. This is a bit rich. The HCSA process has been punctuated by a series of compromises – some would call them capitulations – by the industry. Committing to zero deforestation policies is important; but equally important is financial transparency and good governance, for example.   

FGV Resuspended; IS GAR getting played?

Felda Global Ventures (FGV) has had some of its operations resuspended by the RSPO Complaints Panel following a January appeal and nearly two years of process.

At issue now is that the company’s corrective action plans haven’t been followed. These specifically relate to labour complaints that first emerged in the Wall Street Journal in 2015.

The complaints haven’t changed: they related to the signing of contracts and the use of agents in Malaysian operations, specifically in Sabah.

As we’ve pointed out over the past few years, labour issues are going to be a weapon of choice for anti-palm oil activists over the next few years, particularly in Malaysia. Malaysia has and continues to be a magnet for people in the region seeking better economic opportunities. This also means that these people are vulnerable to exploitation – in any industry. To date, Malaysia has ignored the labour issue imagining it will go away. It’s not.

It’s an ongoing problem in the US market, where the Department of State regularly highlights labour issues in Malaysia. And the U.S.-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and SumOfUs filed a complaint with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) urging the CBP to deny goods made by FGV because of forced labour concerns.

But what’s more notable is that when resuspension took place in 2015, FGV’s share price dropped.

A couple of weeks ago we noted that an ‘independent’ research group funded an investigation and RSPO complaint against Golden Agri Resources. Does this add to the rumour that there’s a share market play underway on Golden Agri Resources?