Promoting Positive Perceptions

As the world grapples with the weighty issues of energy independence, climate change and food versus fuel, corn ethanol and palm oil's roles are often unfairly criticized or misunderstood. EPM takes a look at how palm oil and corn producers deal with negative publicity.
By Susanne Retka Schill | June 02, 2008
Palm oil and corn producers share a regrettable fatebearing the brunt of an onslaught of publicity that may contain an ounce of truth but is buried under tons of misinformation.

The National Corn Growers Association, the Renewable Fuels Association and other ethanol proponents have been working overtime since articles in Science and Time magazines and several daily newspapers have taken a dim view of corn ethanol. Those articles prompted multiple letters to the editor, and led to a press conference in late April where the NCGA, RFA, National Farmers Union and former Secretary of Agriculture John Block attempted to correct misinformation. A few days later, a Business Week article, "Is ethanol getting a bum rap?" concluded that while corn ethanol is not a perfect fuel, it isn't the demon it is made out to be.

Debunking demonization is not an easy task when outdated and biased information gets repeated multiple times by reporters who aren't doing their homework. Just as the biofuels bashing was gaining steam, this EPM staff writer traveled to Malaysia to learn about the palm oil industry and was struck by the similarities and differences in the experiences of the two countries and their dominant crops. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council hosted a group of international journalists at the first International Sustainable Palm Oil Conference. The familiarization program was part of the MPOC's continuing campaign to get its message out. Organized in 1990 as a response to an anti-palm oil campaign surrounding health concerns, MPOC has been ramping up its efforts to combat palm oil's negative public image. "From organizing seminars and participating in exhibitions, we have moved into organizing our own trade fairs," says Yusof Basiron, MPOC chief executive officer. "For the past two years we have used our Web site aggressively to deliver our messages. Road shows and missions are also held to address specific issues." Engaging in dialogues with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and European Union parliamentarians in The Hague, Brussels and London have been positive, he says. "The results have been most encouraging as we see a better understanding of palm oil amongst users."

Nation-Building Commodity
The first International Sustainable Palm Oil Conference was held in Sabah, the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, which leads the country in palm oil production. Malaysia is the world's largest palm oil exporter and only recently was surpassed by Indonesia as the world's largest producer. Together, the countries produce 85 percent of the world's palm oil. Prior to the conference, the journalists were led on a tour of an oil palm plantation.

The drive from the airport at Sandakan, Sabah, took the journalists outside of the city and through oil palm plantings that went on for miles. The oil palm trees are interspersed with mixed native rainforests and rural communities that lined newly built roads. Until the past few decades, the population mainly lived near the coast, subsisting on a fishing economy. As the journalists traveled through the countryside and toured an oil palm plantation, they learned that the crop has helped to lift the country out of poverty. Fifty years ago, in a program reminiscent of the U.S. Homestead Act, settlers were given a tract of land if they would develop it for agriculture. The World Bank and United Nations supported the project, which resulted in nearly 90 percent of the Federal Land Development Authority lands being planted to oil palms, 10 percent to rubber trees, and the remainder to sugarcane, other crops and villages. Today, production from those small land holders makes up 40 percent of the country's palm oil production, with the remainder coming from large, corporate plantations, many of which were converted from coconut and rubber when those crops became less profitable.

"Ironically, when commodities such as palm oil help poor farmers to earn a better income, the NGOs claim that they are harming the environment," Basiron says. "NGOs are putting pressure on developing countries and shutting their commodities out from developed-country markets." Environmental groups in Europe, in particular, have been hammering at the palm oil industry saying they are responsible for the loss of rainforests and critical habitat for wildlife. The criticism is unfair because the country has set aside 60 percent of its land area in permanent forest reserves, Basiron says. Only 24 percent of its land area is devoted to agriculture, compared with 70 percent in the United Kingdom, 49 percent in Germany and 45 percent in the United States.

Furthermore, the Malaysian palm oil industry says its growers are responding to concerns being raised by those critical of their environmental and social performance. For example, wastewater from oil palm milling operations is no longer dumped into the waterways, but treated and recycled. Plantation managers demonstrate their corporate social responsibility by building schools for the children of Indonesian immigrant workers who aren't eligible to attend Malaysian schools. The plantations provide housing and recreational programs for those workers. And, in discussions similar to those that occur in the Midwest among corn farmers, oil palm producers discuss best management practices to reduce soil erosion, breeding programs to improve yields and optimal fertilization programs.

Sustainability is now the issue at the forefront of the Malaysian palm oil industry. In 2003, when the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Switzerland proposed an international forum to address deforestation and wild habitat concerns, Malaysian producers were among the founding members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. Over several meetings, principles and criteria for sustainable palm oil production were developed. Malaysian producers were among those testing the feasibility of applying those principles on the ground prior to their final adoption last fall. Now, each palm oil producing country is developing an implementation plan for its industry to be reviewed by the RSPO. This spring's International Sustainable Palm Oil Conference was the first such conference held to share the progress being made, the work being done on a certification system and to review recent research and projects on environmental and sustainability issues. "Our main goal was to address the issues hurled against palm oil related to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and peat soil usage," Basiron says. "NGOs were invited to present their findings and thoughts."

U.S. Sustainable Efforts
U.S. farmers have faced much of the same scrutiny as oil palm growers in Malaysia and that could intensify as more land is used to produce biofuels feedstocks. Already, the biodiesel industry has organized a sustainable feedstock task force to assess and improve the industry's enviromental impact and social responsibilities while still maintaining an economically viable business. The formation of the task force was announced by the directors of the National Biodiesel Board at their winter conference in February.

The corn growers joined a similar effort last year facilitated by the Keystone Center in Keystone, Colo., says Rick Tolman, chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association. Announced in August 2007, the center launched a sustainability effort with the goal of developing broad participation by the fall of 2008. Producer and conservation organizations as well as businesses throughout the agricultural supply chain are part of the initiative including the NCGA, the American Soybean Association, United Soybean Board, Bunge Ltd., Cargill Inc., Conservation International, DuPont, General Mills, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Mars Inc., Monsanto, National Cotton Council of America, the Nature Conservancy and the WWF U.S. "This project has worked to help establish benchmark sustainability criteria and develop strategies for improvement," Tolman says. "The corn industry is moving ahead with this. We've always been interested in improving production while at the same time reducing environmental impacts. We've seen a lot of success here, thanks to technology that improves nutrient efficiency, for example, or sustainable agriculture practices such as reduced tilling."

Engaging in discussions with many stakeholders on sustainability criteria can be a way to talk with environmentalists about the challenges of balancing competing priorities. The initial Keystone principles, like the sustainable palm oil principles, include profitability concerns, best management and environmentally responsible production practices.

There's no guarantee the criticism will dissipate, however. "While the RSPO has succeeded in formulating principles and criteria for the supply of certified [sustainable] palm oil, some NGOs and state governments in developed countries refuse to recognize the good work of the RSPO," Basiron says. "New goal posts are being erected to frustrate the exporters." He points to the formation of the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund as evidence of the industry's willingness to work with environmentalists. "We have always welcomed any opportunity to work with the NGOs to improve the practices in the industry," Basiron says.

Similarly, the NCGA has worked with various environmental organizations over time, but the current round of negative publicity is troublesome, Tolman says. "We find it frustrating that there appears to be a well-funded concerted campaign against corn ethanol," he says. "It is not only using disinformation, but it portrays corn growers and ethanol producers as committing crimes against humanity and stealing food from the hands of the starving. We're not like that. It's not just a disservice to the truth, it's unethical." Tolman believes a backlash is brewing, however, especially when the huge impact of higher oil prices is considered. "We know the truth is on our side, and we are making progress bit by bit," he says. "What helps us is to find creative ways to get the message out in a simple, understandable way, drawing mental pictures and telling stories in addition to presenting a slate of facts."

"Every industry should know better how to defend itself," Basiron says. "The world has become far more complicated today."

Susanne Retka Schill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at sretkaschill@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962.