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Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron chaired WPOSC in London with Honorary Ministers
The writer had the pleasure of chairing a joint Q&A session with the Hon. Malaysian and Indonesian Minister

During a recent series of meetings between Malaysian palm oil delegation members and European Ministers, Members of Parliament, EU Officials, experts and NGO representatives, it became clear to me that some of the European dialogue partners have very strange perceptions and views relating to deforestation, sustainability and carbon dioxide or green house gas (CHG) emissions. I took note of their views and tried to analyse why they were often very much opposed to the views of the palm oil producers who are involved in the day to day operations of the oil palm industry.

Question from EU Member of Parliament: – “Agricultural crops usually draw too much water from the soil resulting in water shortages which later lead to desertification. Will oil palm cultivation lead to water stresses resulting in unsustainable production?”

From my experience, such a question is best answered if the questioner can visit a typical oil palm plantation in Malaysia. As the Hon. MEP was later informed, the oil palm grows well in the tropical climate of Malaysia where evenly distributed rainfall exceeds the ideal level 2000 mm per year. As there is no irrigation needed water is not diverted away from water bodies therefore avoiding water shortages and stresses. Even water used for processing during oil extraction is recycled, after treatment, to waterways thus avoiding environmental problems.

The lack of knowledge on oil palm plantation and using other temperate crops as bench mark seemed to be the reason for the inaccurate perception and suspicious nature of the question posed by the Hon. MEP.

Question from a big buyer of palm oil: – Why can’t the palm oil industry stop converting forests for oil palm plantations, and instead work hard to increase yield per hectare which ultimately will increase supply sufficient enough to meet the expansion in demand for palm oil?

The gentleman was basically posing a theoretical question although he was very serious. In theory, it is possible to double the yield of the palm in Malaysia and individual plantations have regularly achieved such results. His own company which used to have oil palm plantations in Malaysia tried to increase the yield for their estates and surrounding smallholders but failed to achieve substantial improvements. It is even more difficult to have the whole industry to double the national average yield because of the heterogeneous players of small-scale farms and big plantations.

To demand a moratorium on deforestation is too premature and will be punitive to developing countries. Developing countries are yet to develop their agricultural sector fully and a state like Sarawak has only 8% of its total land area under agriculture compared to 70% in the UK. Large tracks of degraded forest land can be developed into agricultural areas with the potential of rehabilitating the land into sustainable agricultural areas and the revenue generated will help preserve the remaining forests from unwarranted encroachments and subsequent degradation. Oil palm is the best crop to help rehabilitate the ecology of degraded tropical land while bringing remunerative income.

Although there are many types of forest classification in Malaysia, and they can serve different functions including for agriculture, our dialogue partners in the EU seem to know only the phrase “tropical rain forest” and hold the view that these forest must be preserved at all costs. In Malaysia every area of land was originally rain forest and the present non forest areas will revert to become rainforest if left undisturbed for about 20 years. A moratorium on no deforestation will simply mean no development, and the country will remain underdeveloped forever.

A large turnout at the World Sustainable Palm Oil Conference 2008 in London

A large turnout at the World Sustainable Palm Oil Conference 2008 in London

It is better for NGOs and green MEPs in the EU to campaign hard to recreate the over-deforested (agricultural)land of Europe into reforested areas. The objective of maintaining biodiversity and sequestering carbon through reforestation in Europe would contribute significantly to prevent global warming, and this sets a good example for developing countries.It would even be better if the EU countries can follow the standard set in Malaysia and Indonesia where forest areas exceed 60 % of total land area while still managing to produce and export vegetable oils (palm oil and palm kernel oil) accounting for 75% of world net exports of oils and fats.

A common question asked by the dialogue partners during the meetings was how the EU authorities arrived at such a damaging typical default figure of 32 % carbon emission saving for palm oil compared to petroleum fuel, which makes its look the least desirable raw material for biodiesel production.

Apparently, an incomplete equation and a punitive assumption of processing in-efficiencies were used to show low default values for palm oil. The typical default value for palm oil was even lower than the accepted thresh-hold carbon emission saving figure of 35 % stipulated in the proposed EU biofuels directive.

It is illogical for a perennial crop with an all-year-round lush green canopy similar to that of a planted forest type of environment, and that yields ten times more oil per hectare compared to soyabean, to be given an inferior carbon emission saving default figure of 16%.

A study using the Life Cycle Inventory Technique by Dr Chen, a scientist with the Standard and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia (SIRIM) showed that palm oil is a net carbon sequester when used as biodiesel. It means that palm biodiesel achieves carbon emission savings of more than 100 % when compared to petroleum diesel, and not 16% as assigned by the EU authorities. This is derived from the carbon sequestration and multi co-product characteristics of the oil palm, and if confirmed by other independent studies, this new figure will mean that only palm oil is fit to be used as biodiesel while the other competing oils will only have a marginal carbon emission saving effect and most of them will not meet the new thresh-hold carbon emission saving of 45 % proposed in the latest EU biofuels directive.

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