Does palm oil have a PR problem?
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Does palm oil have a PR problem?

WHEN you think of palm oil, the likelihood is you conjure up distressing images of felled forests, dead orangutans, and displaced indigenous people.

There have innumerable emotive, hard-hitting – and very effective – social media campaigns highlighting the evils of the crop. The shift in public sentiment has led to international calls for a boycott.

In January, the European Parliament voted to ban the use of palm oil for the production of biofuels in the European Union by 2020. Major global manufacturers are seeking replacements that don’t carry the stigma that can send consumers fleeing.

But those who know the palm oil industry, while acknowledging the problems of the past, don’t think this representation is fair and worry a whole industry has been tarnished by the poor practices of a small few.

SEE ALSO: What’s worse than palm oil for the environment? Other vegetable oils

“It’s totally one-sided and wrong that the palm oil industry is being accused of 99 percent of all the wrongdoings,” Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Director of United Plantations Berhad Malaysia, Carl Bek-Nielsen, told the audience at the Palm Oil Sustainability conference on Wednesday.

To support his point, he cites United Nations statistics, saying 195 million hectares of forests have been cleared from 1990 to 2015. Palm oil expansions make up less than four percent of this, “nevertheless, palm oil is given 95 percent of the flack.”

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“It’s totally one sided and wrong that the palm oil industry is being accused of 99 percent of all the wrongdoings,” Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Director of United Plantations Berhad Malaysia, Carl Bek-Nielsen, told the audience at the Palm Oil Sustainability conference in Kuala Lumpur, October 17, 2018. Source: Asian Correspondent

The biggest damage the world can do is to boycott palm oil, Bek-Nielsen said, as you will then have to replace it with another crop, and you’re looking at using “at least nine times more land area for what you can yield out of an oil palm plantation.”

No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. And along with using less land, the oil palm requires significantly fewer pesticides and chemical fertilisers than coconut, corn or any other vegetable oil source.

This is all common knowledge to those in the industry, but the industry’s failure to get this message out to consumers is a major problem that is hurting business; business that Indonesia and Malaysia – the top two exporters of palm oil globally – heavily rely on.

The problem is, while industry players in Southeast Asia have big claims to the crops socioeconomic benefits, they don’t have the data to back it up.

SEE ALSO: When palm oil meets politics, Indonesian farmers pay the price

Compared to their South American competitors, Southeast Asia has been lagging behind when it comes to comprehensive academic research on the issue, commercial economist and researcher for the EU Commission, Khor Yu Leng, told Asian Correspondent.

“I see a big gulf between producing countries and the buying countries who say ‘you don’t care about orangutans, you don’t care about people’,” Khor said. “It’s a lot of war of words. We need to use data as a more empirical method to tone down this war of words.”

When the battlefield is social media, it can be a tough war to win. A 2016 study by researchers at Jonkoping University looked at the impact videos published on Facebook, showing the consequences of the palm oil industry on workers and the environment, have on consumers. They found the videos had an impact on every participant’s behaviour.

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Drone view of deforestation caused by palm oil plantations in Thailand. Source: Richard Whitcombe / Shutterstock

“The fact that they said the emotional videos published on social media informed and convinced them to come to the stage of boycotting brands, one could firmly assume that these videos and their content are impactful on certain people, and go further than only taking part on the social media sphere by liking or sharing the content,” the study reads.

Khor points out that social media analysis shows palm oil is currently less popular that US President Donald Trump, a popular target for online criticism. And this negative perception is more prevalent in women – 20 percentage points worse than men, in fact. As women are commonly the decisionmakers when it comes to household budget, changing their view is crucial for the industry.

“We’ve been poor at communicating,” Sales Director for Lipidos Santiga, Jose Angel Olivero told the conference of industry players. “We need to make a big effort in communicating better the good things, how palm oil has contributed to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It’s necessary, we cannot replace palm oil. We know that, the industry knows it, but not the citizens. That’s the problem.”