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Consumers in France are assured that palm oil which is widely used as an ingredient in food items found in supermarkets is relatively deforestation free. All (100%) palm oil farmers in Malaysia are registered and licensed by the government authorised agency, MPOB, to ensure that they plant their oil palms on legitimate agricultural land. Through well established land-use laws and policies, Malaysia is able to retain 56% of its land area under permanent forest and devote 24% for agriculture where oil palm (with 15% share) is a major crop. France only has 28.5% forest and uses 53.7% of its land area for agriculture. The Malaysian policy that creates a good balance between maintaining forest for conservation purposes and the use of land for agriculture ensures that Malaysian palm oil is relatively deforestation free.

French Ministers who have recently spoken negatively about palm oil may not be aware  that Malaysia has a much larger hectarage of permanent forest (206,000 km2) compared to France (156,000 km2) although France has almost twice the land area of Malaysia. Negative statements by these misinformed French Ministers on palm oil may have encouraged the appearance of “palm oil free” labels on selected products in the country. Instead of working towards enhancing the good relationship between countries, such statements which are not supported by facts do not reflect well on the long established Malaysia-French relationship.

France has deforested up to 71.5% of its land area compared to 44% for Malaysia. How can palm oil be accused as a cause of deforestation?  Oil palm only occupies 5 million hectares (15%) of Malaysia’s land area and produces 20 million tonnes of palm oil products. This supplies about 30% of world trade in oils and fats. Yet, rapeseed farms in France which occupy an area of 1 million hectares or 1/5 of Malaysia’s oil palm area, can only produce about a million tonnes of rapeseed oil, or 1/20 of Malaysia’s palm oil output. This is not sufficient to meet the needs of the French people.

Although massive deforestation has and continues to take place in France for growing oil seed crops, opening of vineyards and to carry out other agricultural activities, French agricultural products are not subjected to negative labelling by any French food manufacturers. Instead, palm oil which is relatively deforestation free and is helping to meet shortages of vegetable oils in France and the EU is singled out for discriminatory labeling. This is unfair to the palm oil farmers who, like their French counterparts, equally aspire to earn a livelihood from their oil palm cultivation in Malaysia. These farmers should instead be recognized for their contribution in supplying an affordable vegetable oil to billion of consumers worldwide who would otherwise be undernourished due to non-sufficiency of their local supply.

The “palm oil free” label has been assumed to connote health claims regarding palm oil. When letters from our lawyers were directed at these recalcitrant manufacturers, they denied that the labels were intended to reflect nutritional status of their products. In other words, these “palm oil free” labels were intended to deceive consumers that the products were nutritionally superior.

It is just a matter of time before these recalcitrant manufacturers will be legally challenged to justify their collusion with environmental NGOs by illegally displaying the “palm oil free” labels on their products. They have admitted that the labels are not meant to provide nutritional information. If the justification is on environmental grounds, then all French agricultural products should be subject to ‘non environment friendly” labeling  due to the country’s past track record of deforestation. Although the country is almost twice the size of Malaysia, it has far less forest as compared to Malaysia.  As countries are required to devote a percentage of their land for agricultural development, Malaysia compares favorably to France in terms of land conservation of permanent forests, or efficiency in use of land for producing vegetable oils.

It is therefore timely to call the Malaysia-France Working Committee on palm oil proposed recently by the French Agriculture Minister to find quick solutions to the illegal labeling practices on palm oil carried out by certain French food manufacturers and supermarkets. As the negative sentiments were partly initiated by some French ministers, it is highly obligatory that the government helps to resolve the problem by enforcing the law to prohibit such negative labeling, just as authorities in the USA banned such practices twenty years ago. Without urgent intervention and action by the French government, food manufacturers are negatively affected in trying to maintain their market share, whether they are using palm oil or otherwise in their products. Introducing new labels will increase their costs,reduce profits and corporate tax payments to the government.

Europe cannot afford to curtail international trade which will shrink its economy. France being the leading economy in the EU must set the trend to discipline its manufacturers and supermarkets to adhere to the laws of the country regarding labelling, and in so doing will allow international trade to flourish and help the economy to grow. While palm oil is assured to be deforestation free, manufacturers in France can purchase environmentally friendly palm oil by using certified sustainable palm oil especially from Malaysia.

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