The Malaysian Walkback on 3-MCPD Undermines Producer Unity

Reuters published an article last week that stated Malaysia had decided to walk back a unified position on 3-MCPD esters held by the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC).

The intelligence came from a leaked letter from Malaysia’s Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities..

The change of heart by Malaysia is a reasonably big deal, so let’s start with some background.

The European Commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed) following advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)is on the eve of introducing limits for the presence of 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) and its related esters in foodstuffs.

The approach the EU has taken to 3-MCPD is shaky at best. EFSA has basically gone on its own, placing lower limits on 3-MCPD in foods than those used by the multilateral FAO group, and agencies such as the bilateral Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Further, the European Commission is considering introducing limits to the presence of 3-MCPD in vegetable oils. It has set one limit for palm oil, which is higher than the limit set for all other vegetable oils.

Why is this a problem? There is an understanding among food producers that the higher limits for palm oil will allow competitor oils to market themselves as ‘healthier’ or make a claim of ‘low 3-MCPD’.

This is precisely why CPOPC has been pushing for the same limit to apply to all oils.

This position of consensus among CPOPC parties was reached last year and re-stated again in February of this year – by both Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia has walked back on this position. Why?

The issue is set to be raised by palm oil producing countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Colombia has already raised it at a SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) committee meeting.

Malaysia’s aversion to using the WTO system for settling disputes is well documented. More generally, they have only used the system once. More recently, they withdrew their support from Indonesia’s case against the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) case.

The aversion is a combination of institutional reluctance and to placate Europeans because of an export focused outlook. Surprisingly, WTO cases are not handled within Malaysia’s trade ministry. They are instead handled by the Attorney-General’s Department. Malaysia appears reluctant to both use the system – or hire one of the many WTO-specialist law firms to manage the case for them.

In addition, Malaysia is an export-oriented economy that, in its view, has little heft on the world’s trade stage. This is a myth that should not be perpetuated. Countries such as Malaysia are fully capable of asserting their presence on the world stage; consider Thailand and Vietnam. Sure, none of these countries can match the economic weight of Malaysia, but they are not afraid to ask for what they want.

A simple message for Malaysia should be this: ‘Don’t ask, don’t get.’ Malaysia, simply by never asking for what it wants, will never, ever get it.

But there’s a bigger problem.

The CPOPC position has been well crafted over more than a year. CPOPC was designed as a multilateral umbrella for the world’s palm oil producers to cooperate on. It was essentially established to deal with the many trade barriers being imposed by importing countries on palm oil. That means that at its heart is the issue of trade. If Malaysia continues to unilaterally walk away from other major producers such as Indonesia and Colombia, other CPOPC members will rightly question its commitment to the group.

WHO Adds Confusion on COVID-19 and Fats

The World Health Organization (WHO) has come under fire from the US, Australia and the UK over its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and in particular what many countries are seeing as an over-politicisation of the multilateral organisation.

Will palm oil producing countries join that club?

Last week the WHO’s Mediterranean office issued a simple slide stating that there are some foods that should be avoided during the COVID-19 crisis. These include: “saturated fats: fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oils, cream, cheese, ghee and lard”, as well as “industrially produced trans fats.” But, the WHO is more than happy to recommend that soy and corn oil be consumed as ‘unsaturated fats.’

Apparently the WHO needs a refresher course on trans fats and saturated fats: it’s not that simple.

Just to remind, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has about half the saturated fat content of dairy fats such as butter. The recommendation on saturated fats from most health agencies around the world is check your consumption, not avoid completely. But, to say that soybean oil and corn oil are trans fat free is a misnomer. They must be partially hydrogenated, i.e. have trans fats present, to be used in food applications. And this is where the big danger lies.

We’re also wondering why the WHO is out there giving advice on relatively low-risk non-communicable diseases when the world is in the middle of the largest pandemic it has ever faced. Given some of the contradictory advice being offered on COVID-19, we would think this is the most present threat.

Greenpeace: Never Waste a Crisis

Last week we debunked various attempts by anti-palm campaigners to pin the COVID-19 crisis on palm oil. This week, however, we are going to call out the Greenpeace and Rainforest Foundation Norway effort to create a scare campaign around the COVID crisis and palm oil.

Greenpeace stated: “The lockdown is impacting on forest protection efforts as field teams cannot get out to do their work … We are concerned that companies may take advantage of the lockdown and see it as an opportunity to expand and clear forest.”

Rainforest Foundation Norway stated: “We will certainly see weakened (forest) protection …Not only will we see reduced capacity both at government and NGOs, I also expect that the governments’ and politicians’ attention will be directed elsewhere.”

Seriously?

Both organsiations are failing to appreciate two things.

First is the economic dimension of deforestation. After the Asian Currency Crisis in 1998, levels of smallholder deforestation in rural Indonesia increased. This was because lower levels of income prompted smallholders to expand their planted areas.

Second is that it’s perfectly reasonable for politicians and policymakers to prioritise the health of their constituents during an unprecedented crisis.

The sentiments of both organisations echo the ridiculousness of the UK Ambassador to Indonesia recent comments, who stated they during the crisis, Indonesia should “not lose sight” of climate change.

To add insult, Greenpeace’s lead campaigner in Indonesia stated: “No one should take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis for their own gain.”

They should listen to their own advice.

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