Since as early as 2021 and especially after the European Union approved its Green Deal policy, the palm oil sector has switched its focus to expanding its export markets. Malaysia in particular has made no secret about its aims to conquer the Middle Eastern region as a major new export market, and has been rigorously stressing the health benefits of palm oil in order to do this.
However, sustainability has risen to become a major policy agenda for many major markets in the region, such as Saudi Arabia with its Vision 2030 which has plans to generate 58.7 Gwatts of renewable energy, and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Environment Vision 2030 to combat climate change, air pollution, water and waste management and more.
Given the importance of this as well as its integration into far-reaching policies, the palm oil sector will need to not only assure local industry leaders of its sustainability credentials, but also satisfy ‘future-oriented’ demands in order to fully capture the regional market as a long-term export destination.
“The first thing is that these palm oil sustainability policies must be made clear and transparent to the public, whether they are by Malaysia or Indonesia or other palm oil producing nations,” Professor Ibrahim Ozdemir, Dean at Turkey’s Uskudar University, told a global audience at the recently-concluded Dubai Expo 2020.
“If the sector truly wants to reach new markets such as the Middle East and even North Africa, it is crucial to make it clear that these sustainable palm oil policies are not only human-friendly and eco-friendly, but also future-oriented [in their design].
“[For instance], in addition to assuring how standards such as the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) are revising and reforming to become more sustainable in terms of deforestation or biodiversity conservation, it is also important to look further in terms of things like whether the next generation is being educated [to continue the sustainability journey].
“An example here would include providing scholarships for children, such as those which grew up with exposure to the industry, to learn more about palm oil professionally and get to specialise in this academically – what this means is that in future, these children with a PhD in palm oil will grow to be industry experts, and the sector will have more expertise to improve further moving forward.”
On the other side of the coin, Prof Ozdemir also called upon palm oil naysayers in the community to contemplate on whether their protests and calls for total palm oil removal are truly the best way forward in terms of sustainability.
“Sustainability is not just about one area – it [is multifaceted] and includes aspects such as achieving sustainable economic growth as well,” he said.
“[Naysayers] would do well to remember that millions of people’s lives depend on palm oil [in] producing countries, so just criticising it [without a viable alternative] is not the solution, but instead it is crucial to find new solutions based in ethical responsibility [to help communities as well as the environment].
“Many are forgetting that achieving sustainability is not in fact a ‘destination’ to be reached within a certain timeframe, but an ongoing dynamic process that considers balance for social, economic and environmental – [and] that is the most important goal.”
The butterfly effect in sustainablility thinking
Prof Ozdemir also stressed that given the current advancement of technology and globalisation, thinking of sustainability in the palm oil industry as an issue with ‘national boundaries’ is an outdated way of thinking, as everything has now become interconnected.
“Due to globalisation, everything is connected to everything else despite any geographic socioeconomic differences, and a new mindset is needed when considering sustainability strategies,” he said.
“Nowadays, any tiny changes in the complex [food commodities] system can lead to large unexpected changes many miles away – what is called the butterfly effect – and these changes can be impossible to predict. So trying to operate a sustainable food system within national boundaries, and not consulting others outside these boundaries, is not a sustainable way of thinking in itself.”
Though he did not specifically mention the European Union and its Green Deal as the party attempting to implement sustainability strategies ‘within national boundaries’ without consideration for producing countries, the implications were clear based on mentions of the relevant trade and import requirements for palm oil and several other food commodity being set without any prior discussion with the relevant producing countries.
“Today, what is needed is a stronger sense of shared responsibility to work for the common good and not just for selfish interests, even if at a national level,” he said.
“It is important for the different countries to respect one another and consult one another [on issues that can affect all of them], and no one side should just try to wield power over other countries – a genuine interest in attaining sustainability can only be found if the attempt is made towards a common, unified global system, given everything is connected to everything else.”