By Patrick Chalmers
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Ice cream lovers and French fry fanatics
would not know it, but these foods put a taste of Malaysia in their
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 orangutans
But Malaysia, which earns US$4.5 billion a year as the world’s
largest palm oil exporter, is squaring up to defend its main agricultural
“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, which represents 40 percent
of the country’s growers.
Palm oil 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.
Flying into Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport
gives a view of row upon row of palms, with oil-bearing fruit bunches
lodged among fronds that flourish in equatorial humidity.
Palm oil plantations cover 8.6 million acres, a 10th 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 percent
of exports, valuable diversity in an economy built on electronics
and crude oil. Last year palm oil futures hit 3 1/2-year highs on
ravenous world demand for edible oils and shortages of archrival
But scarcity of suitable new land and perennial problems with foreign
labor mean Malaysian production will soon slip behind that of neighboring
Rampant forest fires on Borneo island in the late 1990s blackened
the reputation of palm oil, as haze blanketed much of Southeast
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—there are benefits. A boycott would not solve the
problem,” said Meena Raman, Friends of the Earth Malaysia’s
For plantation workers, poor small landholders and rural economies,
oil palms provide vital income.
Raman differentiates between East Malaysia on Borneo island—which
plans to expand plantations by 173,000 acres—and Peninsular
Malaysia, where there is scant land for new planting.
“As far as East Malaysia is concerned, Sarawak in particular,
the concern there is that oil palm plantations are being pushed
into lands owned by indigenous people.
“We feel that there are a lot of threats to the forest—logging
is still going on, then there is dam building and pulp paper plantations—it’s
not just oil palm alone.”
Among health agencies palm oil is controversial for its high saturated
fat content compared with soy oil. The effect of different types
of fat is a central element in the debate about cholesterol build-up
and resulting coronary heart disease.
The World Health Organization lists cholesterol as one of five factors
responsible for a third of all disease in the West. “The world
is living dangerously—either because it has little choice
or because it is making the wrong choices,” the UN agency
said in its latest annual World Health report.
But the Malaysian palm oil industry says research into the health
effects of fat are still unclear.
“If you took two groups of eminent scientists and nutritionists
in Europe and the United States, they would probably disagree,”
says Chetan Ishrani, a senior executive with Agritradex, which trades
in most edible oils—including palm and soy oil.
“The question is what effects the two different kinds of
foods have on the human body and the jury’s still out on that.”
James Dawos, a senior state government official in Sarawak, says
critics also ignore the state’s development needs, which are
more basic than elsewhere in Malaysia or anywhere in the West.
“We still need development. We don’t want to live on
the top of the trees,” he said.
Sarawak assigns total protection to 10 percent of its land, 50
percent for forestry and allows development on the rest. But the
picture is complicated by native groups that contest the state’s
right to develop what they say is ancestral land.
They want a greater share of development benefits. In Sabah, Malaysia’s
most eastern state, environmentalists are trying to marry the interests
of planters with those of local people and wildlife.
“We are not talking in terms of a boycott or using alternative
oils because then we are just passing the problem from one country
to another,” says Andrew Ng, a policy analyst with the Worldwide
Fund for Nature.
Palm oil trees, which thrive only in the tropics, produce a lot
more oil per acre than rivals such as soybeans and canola. That
may prove critical as world population grows.
“If you want to get the most oil from the least land, palm
oil is best,” says Ishrani.
“It’s the cheaper oil so its consumption and production
are going to grow, there’s no way to stop it.”