The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Pierre Bois d’Enghien, agronomist and environmental expert, who has worked with many of Europe’s leading players in plantations and agricultural development.

On April 4th, the European Parliament will vote on a report from the Environment Committee entitled ‘Palm Oil & Deforestation’, drafted by MEP Katerina Konecna from the Czech Republic. As someone with 30 years’ experience in agricultural development, specializing in sustainability in the Palm Oil sector, this Report is one of the most error-strewn documents I have ever read. I find it difficult to understand why Members of the European Parliament would vote through such a report.

 

The report’s stated aim is to advance sustainable forest management, and sustainable agricultural production. However, the recommendations put forward do not advance these goals at all – in fact, the proposals would be actively harmful for the environment, harmful for poverty reduction in Africa and Asia, and insulting to our trading partners on those continents.

 

First, the environment. The Report claims that oil palm has caused 40 per cent of deforestation. This is, frankly, ridiculous. The reference cited by the Parliament report does not even contain this statistic. The EU’s own official research on deforestation estimates only 2.5 per cent could be attributed to oil palm – far less than other commodities, including livestock, soybeans and maize. And not even close to the 40 per cent that is cited in the EP report.

 

Why does this matter? Well, truth matters, for a start. In the age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, the European Parliament should be meticulous in supporting only credible and evidence-based work. The report on Palm Oil falls well short on both these counts.
Second, on poverty reduction. At various points in the text, the MEPs call for the Commission to take action to ensure ‘sustainable development’. The good news is that sustainable development is already happening. I have seen it with my own eyes on small-farmer oil palm plantations across Africa, and in south-east Asia. In some African countries, such as Nigeria, small farmers produce up to 90 per cent of all palm oil. Oil palm is perfect for the tropical climate, easy to cultivate, and provides predictable, regular income. For millions of poor, rural farmers across Africa it has been a lifeline. That’s the good news.

 

The bad news is that MEPs want to undermine this sustainable development. The proposals in the European Parliament report – on certification, labelling, tariffs, and others – would harm these small farmers. Amendments to the text have ensured that the benefits of oil palm for small farmers are recognized. However, it is meaningless for MEPs to state in ink “we support palm oil small farmers”, while pursuing actions that actively undermine those very same farmers.

 

Aside from such specific errors, there is a wider problem with the Report’s negative depiction of Palm Oil. It is an established agricultural fact that oil palm is one of the world’s most-efficient crops. That means it uses less land, fewer pesticides, and less fertilizer, than any other oilseed crop. More oil is produced on less land: meaning more land is free to be preserved as forest. In other words, the efficiency of oil palm leads to less deforestation, not more. Moreover, the point on palm oil being low cost is completely false, the low cost is not due to the increase of oil palm plantations in deforested areas, it’s only due to the high efficiency of the crop.

 

This is not just theoretical. Examining the forest area of Palm Oil-producing countries provides on-the-ground evidence. Malaysia, one of the world’s largest Palm Oil exporters, maintains over 50 per cent of land as forest area – and Malaysia’s forests are increasing in area, not diminishing. Official figures from the United Nations and the World Bank confirm this trend. Other Palm Oil-producing countries in south-east Asia and in Africa also have forest area that is vastly superior to most EU countries. Instead of lecturing these countries about imagined deforestation issues, we in Europe should be asking them for advice.

 

Finally, these debates do not take place in a vacuum. Others will read this European Parliament report – and those in Asia and Africa will likely take offence at the depiction of their small farmers as rabid forest-destroyers. Indeed, some countries have already expressed their displeasure. The EU’s wider agenda in the developing world – including building trade links, security cooperation, and diplomatic relations – will not prosper if we continually insult the work of millions of farmers and workers in those countries.

 

So, what happens now? The European Commission is reportedly preparing a study on certification schemes, which would cover palm oil. I have worked in the field of sustainability certification for 10 years, and the best advice I can give to the Commission is to conduct their research independently, and to ignore completely this report from MEP Konecna. If the European Union is really serious about advancing the goals of sustainable development, it would be better served listening to the people and governments of Africa and Asia, instead of lecturing them.

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