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Western NGOs have been using the Victoria Zoos network to mount anti palm oil campaigns in Australia by making allegations linking palm oil production to deforestation and orang utan habitat destruction. Heightened publicity is needed in these campaigns and signatures of sympathizers have been carefully obtained to show public support. The campaign provides Western NGOs a platform for a much needed publicity profile. A Bill was then tabled in the EU and Australian Parliament seeking for palm oil to be mandatorily labeled instead of being included under the vegetable oils category as is customarily used for labelling all vegetable oils used in food products.

In the original version of the Bill which was submitted to the Australian Senate, certified sustainable palm oil was required to be labeled separately when RSPO certified palm oil is used in food products sold in Australia. Although the term referred in the Bill is to provide for “right of consumers to know to enable them to make an informed choice”, the intention was to encourage the use of certified sustainable palm oil while normal palm oil would be negatively perceived through the NGOs anti palm oil campaigns.

WWF, a core supporter of the campaign was also the only RSPO member who supported the Bill at the Senate Committee hearing. RSPO was after all initiated by non – other than WWF. By supporting the Bill, WWF’s interest to have control of the palm oil supply chain is served by only allowing certified palm oil to be mandated as the sole form acceptable for use in either Australia or the EU. The coordinated efforts of NGOs resulted in both Australia and EU initiating a similar Bill.

A clear conflict of interest arises when one studies WWFs campaigns in Australia. WWF is aware that the EU and Australian Parliament will reject specific endorsement of its certified palm oil. Although this has indeed happened, WWF benefitted from the heightened publicity as this helped to steer public interest to donate funds to save the orang utan through advertising campaigns carried out on Australian TV. Judging by the frequent appearances of the advertisement, there must surely be a good source of income generated by WWF to justify the advertising expenditure.

At the recent hearing by the Economics Committee of the Lower House, it was ironic to witness how many parties were dragged into the legislative process to oppose the ludicrous Bill should the sole purpose of the anti-palm oil campaign and the labelling Bill is to enable WWF to raise funds. Furthermore, in the current modified form of the Bill as discussed at the hearing by the Committee, the objective of the bill is no longer relevant, or related to food safety, except to “provide consumers right to know”. What happens should consumers later demand that coconut oil be labeled in all products sold in Australia? Would a new labelling bill be created? We do wonder if NGOs like WWF have a real concern for consumer issues or are instead more focused collecting funds which are easily generated through publicity created using the orang utan icon.

What would happen if the Bill, should it be passed becomes a trade barrier and destroys the income of numerous Malaysian smallholders who depend on oil palm cultivation to survive? I would not protest should money from well meaning and affluent Australians is diverted to WWF funds for a noble cause. But a question we need to ask as donors – are any of these funds collected by the Australian WWF indeed channeled to conservation of orang utan habitats in Sabah or Sarawak, the states where orang utan are found in Malaysia ?

As almost 100% of palm oil imports by Australia come from Malaysia, is it not right that the money collected for such a purpose is channeled to the conservation of the orang utan in Malaysia? The Malaysian palm oil industry has shown a commitment by offering a matching grant should funds be directed to orang utan conservation projects under the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF). The active sponsors of the orang utan projects in Sabah and Sarawak are also listed and acknowledged indicating transparency in work undertaken for a good cause.

Committee members of the Australian parliament have spent a lot of time and effort going through the various stages of making sense of a Bill whose sole intention is for NGOs to raise funds in the name of conservation. Officials from the various Australian Government Ministry’s and food industries who are aware of the complications that will arise have not shown any support for the Bill. Even if passed, the Bill will only be good for the internet shelf because a similar Bill first introduced in 2008 was rejected by the authority involved in formulation of food standards in Australia. It should be brought to the attention of the Australian Parliament that a similar Bill on separate palm oil labelling was also recently rejected by the EU parliament .The bright side of the whole debate was the endorsement at the hearing by relevant authorities on palm oil’s nutritional attributes for use in food, and an agreement that sustainability should not be addressed in mandatory food labels as this falls under the category of social issues. Instead, voluntary labeling can be used to promote specific traits.

If deforestation is genuinely an issue of concern for the Green NGOs, I was able to remind the debate that Australia with a smaller population was deforesting (over half million hectares per year between 2000 and 2010) at rate that is 5 times higher than that by Malaysia; forest to total land ratio in Malaysia is 56 % compared to 17% for Australia; and agricultural land to forest area ratio for Malaysia is 1 to 3 whereas it is 3 to 1 for Australia despite its smaller population.

If WWF and other green NGOs are keen to stop deforestation, Australia would be a better place to focus. There are many Australian animals that are already extinct or endangered and many more Australian agricultural products that they can target to be mandatorily labeled to support “consumers’ right to know”.

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