Think of alternatives to palm oil exports

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An oil palm plantation in Malaysia - Photograph: Wikipedia

The issue of palm oil has to be placed in the wider picture of carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, the mixture of energy sources and food security. Paul Lim writes.

I read Ch’ng Chin Yeow’s article on transforming palm oil as a premium product and wish to add a perspective from the EU.

Why? In the Malaysian attack on the EU by government ministers, the orangutans and the NGOs fighting for them are mentioned. But this issue is larger than protecting orangutans.

Ch’ng’s article provides the reasoning for Malaysian certification: to facilitate the acceptance of Malaysian palm oil and consumer goods such as cosmetics and food products.

The Malaysian government has been pushing for EU acceptance of Malaysian certification. But availability of products without palm oil on the shelves of European supermarkets proves palm oil is not indispensable.

The issue of palm oil being used not just in manufacturing but also in biodiesel is what the Malaysian attack was focused on. Tied to this is another dimension: the use of palm oil in Malaysia itself. They are intertwined.

External trade of palm oil

Oil palm cultivation has superseded the planting of rubber, and Malaysia is no longer the number one exporter of rubber. This is the legacy of monoculture from British colonial times, leading up to independence – exchanging one crop for another.

What’s next? Coconuts as in the Philippines? Cocoa as in Vietnam? It is all about making huge profits for the owners, the shareholders, the corporations – both state-owned and private – by selling abroad. The US, Europe, India and China are major export destinations.

Malaysia’s error was to put all its eggs in one or just a few baskets such as the US, Europe, India and China. This was short-term thinking. It makes the country too reliant and dependent on external trade.

Palm oil (previously rubber) is a pillar of Malaysia’s primary industries sector, the other pillar being petrol. How long can Malaysia depend on these two products to keep its economy afloat? What is the weight of the manufacturing sector? Will tourism be another external dependency? (The economies of the southern European nations also rely heavily on tourism.)

If Malaysia needs cash crop production for export, then it is a reflection that manufacturing, industrialisation and the fourth industrial revolution are not on firm ground. We must diversify the entire economy.

On this issue of the EU’s boycott of Malaysian palm oil, the previous primary industries minister always highlighted the plight of the smallholders, but little was said about the big boys of the palm oil industry. These smallholders were encouraged, provided with seeds and encouraged to jump on the bandwagon of palm oil production for more income and profits. This was promoted as a way to lift people out of poverty.

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It is nice to bring in some kind of morality in talking about the livelihoods of the smallholders to the EU. But we may not be aware there are farmers in Europe committing suicide every day because they cannot survive on their cultivation despite state and EU aid. Isn’t this more dramatic? Europe too has to take care of its farmers and defend the interests of its agricultural community.

These Malaysian smallholders were sold a dream, and hence they turned away from cultivating other crops they were already cultivating. Isn’t this the same logic and mentality we see in the selling of Musang King durians to China? Eyeing huge profits coming from China, the big boys are trying to effectively take control of the durian plantation smallholders.

Food security as a priority at home in Malaysia – and what of Europe?

The larger picture is about food security, food self-sufficiency and food safety. Malaysia is no more self-sufficient in rice, a staple food, and has been importing about 30-40% of rice over the last 30 years.

Can those oil palm smallholders whose livelihoods are at stake, grow other crops for Malaysian consumers? Can highly polluted oil palm land be converted into land for food production? Years of pesticides and fungicides would have taken its toll on the land.

The country must rethink its priorities. Isn’t the aim of agriculture to feed the people with safe, quality food rather than exporting it to Singapore? How many Malaysian families use palm oil for cooking, cake-making, etc? Shouldn’t the nation diversify its agricultural economy substantially to ensure food security? What about vegetable and fruit farming, for instance.

The Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, when it was first set up, aimed for European security and self-reliance in food – before it was dumped on world markets because of overproduction with disastrous effects for farmers, especially in the poorer countries. Europe prioritised food security over food exports.

Malaysia has to get its priorities right. There must be some self-reliance in food production, and this requires long-term planning. One wonders what kind of long-term thinking there was decades ago. Was the policy to go with what we have at the moment – to capitalise on it and, when the next opportunity arises, to react? If so, that was a simply reactive policy. Has the direction of agricultural policy been simply a matter of winning votes? It should not be an issue of buying votes, of racial politics. Food security is crucial for people, for any state.

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Palm oil as a biodiesel – something to think about

I still remember biodiesel production for European use. Again, with this mentality of reaping huge profits, a Malaysian group even set up a refinery in Rotterdam to produce palm oil biodiesel.

However, there was no initiative taken to produce biodiesel from palm oil for use in Malaysia. The Europeans want biodiesel; we produce for them. But in Malaysia, we use petrol. Was there then or even today any serious effort made to use biodiesel as one means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in Malaysia?.

It is not only Malaysia that fears Europe reducing imports of palm oil biodiesel. It is also a concern that European farmers use land to grow crops like rapeseed for biodiesel rather than food. As such, there is a movement to push for less dependence on crop-based biodiesel.

Europe is going up the value chain to produce energy. There is talk of second-generation biodiesel fuels, which are not crop-based, but I am not an expert on this.

More importantly, electric cars and other electrified transport are not biodiesel powered. Biodiesel to produce electricity? I do not know.

Ships running on electricity? There is at least one in operation.

Doing away with fossil fuels? The giants of the petroleum industry are thinking of a way out. What is Petronas thinking? We should be thinking of how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, how to go carbon neutral.

More investments are going into clean hydrogen (already there have been experiments with trains using hydrogen) and solar energy (coming from the deserts of North Africa, for example, which will also benefit the North African countries), wind technology, and tidal and wave energy.

All this to reduce carbon emissions and to keep the rise in world’s temperature below 1.5C.

There are also experiments now on carbon capture. An ITER international nuclear fusion research and engineering mega-project in France seeks to produce thermal energy, with China, India, Japan and South Korea as participating Asian nations.

The EU aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. China has committed itself to 2060.

A time will come when imports into the EU will have to respect carbon neutrality, starting from their origins. This will pose a big problem for poor and developing countries.

Housing and other buildings will require renovation so they become energy efficient and only use building materials that bring about carbon neutrality.

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There are too few indications that Malaysia is thinking of such new energy sources for the long term. Instead, it seems stuck with politicking to gain power.

If all the above technological efforts succeed, where will Malaysia’s palm oil biodiesel be in the equation of alternative and renewable sources of energy that are carbon neutral?

If Malaysia want to think long term, it should stop thinking of relying on palm oil exports to keep its economy going. Think of alternatives. What are Malaysia’s energy plans for the future? Is it going to import new technology for its own use and remain technology dependent? What are the Malaysian scientists saying and thinking of the future? When will Malaysia go carbon neutral?

Malaysian ministers, their ministries, civil servants and experts who take part in UN meetings, the Paris Agreement – what are they thinking? What commitments have been made to respect the Paris Agreement? How to implement them? Have all these gone under the bridge with all the politicking for power? What has been said to the Malaysian public – or is planning for the future secret?

Are carbon dioxide emissions even a public issue in Malaysia? I doubt. Any thought of reducing the car population? No. What policy is there in place to electrify cars and, more importantly, to electrify public transport? There are such policies but what incentives are there to encourage electrification and to turn to renewable energy?

What is the role of Malaysian scientists, inventors, manufacturers in reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Do you hear from them?

Another dimension

All this is part of another dimension – apart from saving the planet by saving nature, saving the forests as carbon sinks, and protecting biodiversity, water resources, the ecosystem and the lives of the indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on the forests, all that Ch’ng wrote in his article.

Hence, the issue of palm oil has to be placed in the wider picture of carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, the mixture of energy sources; of saving the planet, which is over exploited; of conserving forests, the animal kingdom and the ecosystem.

Paul Lim is retired in a rural village in southern Belgium but wakes up to write when he reads interesting articles like the one by Ch’ng. He specialised in Europe’s relations with Asia, including Malaysia, when working in Brussels. He also taught in Malaysian universities

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