The Hypocrisy of the EU in the Palm Oil discourse: an ASEAN perspective.

Women & Politics Postgraduate Officer Fara is currently studying MSc Global Affairs (with regional focus in MENA). She also works for an Environment NGO and has previously interned at the UN (Humanitarian Agency). In her free time, she is a total podcast-enthusiast, runs a food blog on Instagram (follow @wholesomebites_), and is almost always singing! She also really loves her 2 cats, Dunkin and Donut.

[Featured Image: A factory outside of Kuala Lumpur that produces palm oil, with two workers next to large shipments.]

Just last  Christmas, the UK supermarket company, Iceland, released a Greenpeace advert on the harmful impact of palm oil on wildlife animals, notably orangutans. The Christmas advert was shortly banned from airing on television citing concerns of the cartoon being ‘too political’. A Guardian article notes how the association with Greenpeace is the main controversy as the organisation is deemed to be ‘too political’ (to which I argue is a pathetic decision given that we are undoubtedly living in a political society). As expected, the emotional reaction to the little orangutan escaping from deforestation is, understandably, justifiable. 

But the advert represents just one part of the problem in the discourse- that the conversation surrounding palm oil has been reduced and oversimplified to dying orangutans and forest fires. It immediately antagonises countries that are key stakeholders in the crude-palm-oil (CPO) industry, without assessing the larger picture at hand. In the age where climate change has greatly become the forefront of political campaigns and protests, the status palm oil has quickly been demonised. In reality, other industries such as livestock/beef production and soy are far worse when it comes to contributing to global illegal deforestation and unsustainable agriculture. To put it simply, more animals die, and even more land is being used as result of your cheeseburger and your soy latte when compared to palm oil production. 

I aim to examine the possible ulterior motives and consequences (spoiler alert: quite devastating) of the EU’s recent move towards banning palm oil imports by 2020. Although this seems like quite the controversial take, given the trend towards boycotting palm oil for sustainability, I’m here to explain to you why my take is not at all surprising.  

It is my belief that the EU ban on palm oil is protectionism at best, guised under the pretext on environmentalism. It’s undeniably hypocritical. The dispute surrounding the CPO industry is a form of eliminating market competition as the EU is unable to monopolise the industry given the climate and environmental factors. The ban is much more than just addressing environmental concerns, but rather it is a cynical form in attempting to eliminate competition from ASEAN economies. EU being the major producer of rapeseed and sunflower oil is still one of the biggest importers of palm oil from ASEAN countries, thus it is a strategic move on their part, politically and economically, to implement protectionist measures in order to encourage growth of domestic vegetable oils. 

Furthermore, If the EU truly want to implement sustainable measures for environmentalism sake, they should look toward banning meat and soy production which statistically are more inefficient and contribute towards climate change through deforestation as an alarming rate, in comparison to palm oil production.  2018 saw that imports of soybean supplies from the U.S. (EU’s main soy bean supplier) increased by 112%. As well as the notable increase in imports, Europe remains the top destination of the U.S. soybean exports at a staggering 28%. The EU’s efforts towards tackling climate change and deforestation should not be reserved for its ASEAN counterpart. The effects of EU consumption are so visible in the Amazon that various groups have called for higher tariffs for Brazilian imports. 

Another important consequence to keep in mind is the likelihood of increase in other oil production to meet the (loss) demand for palm oil. Consequently displacing the problem rather than assisting to find sustainable ways in producing palm oil. Again, this counters the environmental factors in banning palm oil in the first place. 

Lastly, it is important to think of the livelihoods of millions of people depending on the industry, of whom are predominantly from working class background across Indonesia and Malaysia. It is not big corporations that will suffer from net losses from the proposed ban, but more importantly, small farmers as the very backbone of this industry who fall victim to big corporations within the industry as well. More than 4 million smallholder farmers are dependent on this industry in Indonesia alone. According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, 3.2 million Malaysians, particularly those who reside in rural communities who rely on the industry will face devastating effects. As a result, farmers across Indonesia and Malaysia will be subjected to poverty as production for palm oil has been their only source of income. The ban will contribute insignificantly towards environmentalism in addition to staggering effects on the livelihood on ASEAN farmers. 

The discussion is often hypocritical on Europe’s part and shifts the blame on ASEAN corporations and countries. I’m urging you to think of the devastating repercussions from the ban on palm oil imports. I’m urging you to think of the calamitous effect on the livelihoods of ASEAN farmers. Not only would this ban lead to crushing consequences on ASEAN countries, but this may discourage other stakeholders such as the joint efforts between the Congo Basin and WWF in partaking towards sustainable CPO production. Additionally, there are other ways for the EU to make their mark within the sustainability movement. Instead of proposing a ban on CPO which would result in more harm than good, the EU should support the sustainable production of palm oil. A way to do this is by assisting companies in planting on degraded land rather than replacing, which leads to the deforestation of forest land. 

Given the possible consequences, the proposed ban will do more harm than good. Fundamentally, the EU ban on CPO is hypocritical at best, and a form of antagonistic protectionism guised under the pretext of environmentalism. There are various ways to implement sustainability and environmentalism in trade. This ban isn’t one of them as it’s redundant at best. 

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