Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 27 (Reuters): Ice cream lovers and French fry fanatics would not know it but these foods put a taste of Malaysia in their mouths. They are dining on palm oil, an ingredient in many processed foods, and unknowingly entering a debate on a controversial, yet key, crop for the southeast Asian nation and fellow producers.
Critics say palm oil contains unhealthy fats and comes from plantations cut from the forest homes of threatened species such as orang-utans and elephants. But Malaysia, which earns $4.5 billion a year as the world’s largest palm oil exporter, is squaring up to defend its main agricultural crop. “We have now got to make a stand. As far as Malaysia is concerned we’ve got a fantastic story to tell, which the outside world does not know,” said M. R. Chandran, the chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association that represents 40 per cent of the growers.
Supporters argue research on fat in the human diet is inconclusive, only a few errant growers cause environmental damage, and the crop brings valuable income to remote rural communities. Palm oil plantations cover 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres), a tenth of Malaysia and an area bigger than Belgium.
From nothing in the 1950s, the oil palms have ousted the rubber trees of British colonial times to dominate Malaysia’s farm sector. Palm oil makes up 5 per cent of exports, valuable diversity in an economy built on electronics and crude oil.
Last year palmoil futures hit 3-1/2-year highs on ravenous world demand for edible oils and shortages of arch-rival soy oil. But scarcity of suitable new land and perennial problems with foreign labour mean Malaysian production will soon slip behind that of neighbouring Indonesia.
Rampant forest fires on Borneo island in the late 1990s blackened the reputation of palm oil, as haze blanketed much of south-east Asia for weeks. The fires, mainly in Indonesian parts of the island, were often started to clear land for oil palms. The fires stoked talk by Western environmental groups of a palm oil boycott, to the alarm of growers and local green groups.
“Oil palm is not one of those commodities you can say is all bad. A boycott would not solve problems,” said Meena Raman, Friends of the Earth Malaysia’s secretary general.
For plantation workers, and rural economies, oil palms provide vital income.