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By Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram, CEO, Malaysian Palm Oil Council

Mere days after The World Resources Institute (WRI) issued new greenhouse gas protocols, the organization felt it important to repost this enlightening article about agricultural emissions. The article brings common sense and clarity to issues related to deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To each point, I have added timely information about how the Malaysian palm oil industry continues to lead the world in its environmental stewardship.

Point #1: The agricultural sector is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter. 

Oil palm plantations in reality efficiently remove CO2 due in part to the extensive green foliage they carry throughout their lifespan of at least 30 years. Malaysia has agreed to periodically report on its national GHG emissions and measures taken to address climate change. Among the 106 countries which reported their GHG inventories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2000, Malaysia was ranked among the lowest GHG emitters in the world. The U.S., EU and Australia ranked among the top 20 countries with the largest CO2 emitters. Only 11 countries stood out as net carbon sinks; Malaysia was one of these.

This trend will continue since Malaysia has pledged to retain at least 50 percent of its land mass under forest and green cover, and oil palm will continue to be a mainstay of the Malaysian economy.

Point #2: Most farm-related emissions come in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

Cattle belching is a top source of farm-related emissions. Now consider that livestock accounts for 71 percent of all agricultural land use, or 30 percent of land surface on the planet. The area occupied by oil palm in the world is miniscule by comparison, just 0.31 percent of all agricultural land use.

Point #3: The 10 countries with the largest agricultural emissions in 2011 – and contributing 51 percent of global agricultural emissions – were (in descending order): China, Brazil, United States, India, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Democratic Republic of Congo, Argentina, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Malaysia has kept its pledge to set aside at least 50 percent of its total land area under forest and green cover since its pledge at the Rio Earth Summit in 1990. As of 2017, at least 56 percent of Malaysia’s land has been reported under permanent forest reserve including state forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Point #4: Global agricultural emissions are projected to continue increasing, driven by production of vegetable oils and animal products, in response to the world’s increased food demand.

Concern for food security and available arable land to support increased food production are where the superior productivity of the oil palm comes into the picture. Oil palm cultivation minimizes the land acreage needed to feed our planet’s growing population. The oil palm produces 4.0 tons of oil per hectare, making it a highly productive crop compared with outputs of canola (0.59), sunflower (0.42) and soybean (0.36).

Plus, each oil palm tree produces fruit for up to 30 years, enabling oil palm plantations to sustain a healthy wildlife ecology.

Point #5: Most of the land use emissions are connected to agriculture, many resulting from deforestation as farms expand into tropical forests.

Around the world, oil palm is grown on the lowest amount of land area among the four major oil crops. Between 2010 and 2015, four times more land were cleared to plant soy than oil palm.

The oil palm is a big perineal tree, which grows and bears fruits throughout the year. It is unlike soy, canola, rapeseed and sunflower which only live for a few months during which they flower and fruit before they are harvested and then uprooted from the ground or left to decay in the field.

Among the oil crops, oil palm is the highest yielding among the major oil crops. If a situation arises, similar to the current debate to ban palm oil based biofuels in Europe, then industry would need to substitute with less efficient oil bearing crops such as soy, canola and sunflower. Should this happen, very large areas of forest are likely to be destroyed to plant these crops to fill palm oil’s absence?

Point #6: Most farms fail to measure their emissions, making it difficult for them to reduce their impact.

Malaysia’s certification scheme for sustainable palm oil (MSPO) will be mandatory nationwide by the end of 2019. Awareness of environmental impact is expected of everyone, including the small family farmers (smallholders). These requirements include:

  • Use of renewable energy, where possible
  • All waste products and pollution sources are identified and disposed of properly
  • Quality and availability of surface and groundwater are maintained
  • Basic understanding of any species or habitat of concern, together with the conservation needs, is shown
  • Open burning during land preparation for oil palm cultivation or replanting shall not be practiced

Here is an example of Malaysia’s progressive environmental policies. During the palm oil milling process, a by-product called palm oil mill effluent (POME) is created. That POME holds a high concentration of biodegradable organic material. It is usually ponded in effluent treatment tanks, where it naturally decomposes. But the breakdown creates potent methane biogas (greenhouse gas) that can harm the environment.

Malaysian palm oil mills now have in place systems to trap and recycle that biogas. Such trapping features are projected to be made mandatory in all its oil palm mills. The country will build biogas facilities across Malaysian mills and educate the farmers on how to recycle this gas

which is a ready and useful source of fuel and already used to generate green electricity is some parts of the country.

Point #7: WRI research shows that about 24 percent of all calories currently produced for human consumption are lost or wasted in the food supply chain.  

Malaysian palm oil processing systems are today some of the most modern among the global oils and fats industry. This has contributed to minimum loss of the caloric rich fats produced. In addition the fact that palm oil lends itself better as a frying fat, resisting oxidation and spoilage, it also means that less oil turnover is necessary and results in conserving food calorie wastage.

Point #8: To manage GHG emissions, farmers need to understand their emissions sources.

Through Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), the entire industry supply chain is targeted for mandatory certification by the end of 2019. Certified sustainable Malaysian palm oil will become the norm, rather than the exception.

Malaysian oil palm cultivation and palm oil manufacturing are already more environmentally friendly, compared to other major oilseed crops. The cultivation and processing of oil palm requires less input of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel energy to produce one ton of oil.

Palm oil is the world’s most produced, affordable and consumed edible oil. And it is in fact the only edible oil that is certified sustainable by a number of independent certification schemes and standards. It is enjoyed by more than three billion people in 150 countries. And as the world’s population increases, Malaysia is poised to help meet the growing demand for this nutritious food. 

The Malaysian palm oil industry is open to greater intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation with NGOs and industry end users, to work toward common goals of Sustainability.


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