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Gaining control of the global narrative on palm oil

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James Bladen
James Bladen joined Alpha Southeast Asia in 2015. He has written on a wide range of issues covering capital markets, Islamic finance and M&A. He worked as a consultant in Indonesia (2013-2017) and moved to New York in 2020 where he continues to cover Southeast Asia.

Developing a strong multi-dimensional counter strategy

(PART 1 OF 3)

If the palm oil industry wishes to gain control of the global narrative on palm oil, it needs to resolve on stop being on the backfoot.

From knee-jerk reactions, recoiling from attacks to scrambling to overcome the onslaught of negative campaigning against palm oil, there is an urgent need to first and foremost, understand where the industry stands – in order to get to where it needs to be.

Hiring lobbyists, PR and advertising agencies is far from enough especially since NGOs, the rival soybean, rapeseed and sunflower industries and its multiple proxies are doing far much more than just this, and all in stealth mode. The question is, how is the palm oil industry responding? The answer is perhaps part of the reason why the palm oil industry today is far from securing the narrative on palm oil.

From facilitating data and research for NGOs (such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, WWF, Friends of the Earth and other civil society groups) on key anti-palm oil themes such as deforestation, orangutans, traceability and haze to covertly funding thinktanks, sponsoring anti-palm oil focused whitepapers or planting biased editorials using op-ed columnists in W.H.O bulletins, the highly organised anti-palm oil interest groups in recent years have quite successfully mastered the art of engaging the media, governments, policymakers, NGOs, oil and fats users and the end consumers to create a convoluted understanding of palm oil, much to the chagrin of palm oil stakeholders in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Innovatively leveraging on social media platforms via bloggers and other talking heads by using versatile press kits to cleverly supporting the dissemination of palm oil defamatory videos and advertisements online and via smartphones, the well-funded, anti-palm oil interest groups has shrewdly permeated the mainstream mass media and today plays an important role shaping media output via a bevy of articles and airtime relying on subterfuge, distorting half-truths about palm oil, falsely parading them as facts.

The anti-palm interest group however, is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, Instead, it is a complex, diverse and powerful interest group, that goes to considerable lengths to shape public discourse and influence public policy by astutely investing in the media, academia and establishing tangible presence in diverse thinktanks, orchestrating pressure against the palm oil industry.

It is therefore naive at best to think – higher yield productivity, traceability, forest governance, sustainable certification, raising the bar on best agricultural practices or sustainability endorsements by major palm oil users such as Unilever, Nestle, Hershey and Danone will alone, help end or minimise the negative campaign against palm oil.

On the contrary and given the history of the well-funded assault against the palm oil industry since the mid-eighties, one fact is certain: The key sticking points about palm oil will only mutate into something else over time.

The angle not too long ago, used to be about alleged health risks resulting from the consumption of palm oil products. Over time, as these unsubstantiated reports were discredited, rising media coverage on climate change opened up new possibilities for anti-palm oil interest groups to conflate fact with fiction by using deforestation and sustainability as the new rallying cause.

Therefore with the lapse of time, the anti-palm oil interest groups will surely find another false trope to carry forward their agenda, when this is in large part, fundamentally a trade and protectionist issue.

SOLUTION

To enable the palm oil industry to get out of its current quagmire, the industry must therefore develop a strong multi-dimensional counter strategy that is more than just about PR, lobbying and stating scientific data via palm oil associations. Put simply, responding with facts and figures via PR agencies, lobbyists and trade groups on the issues of deforestation, wildlife loss, health, sustainability and human rights whilst important, is not going to be enough.

As an example, although there are multiple, complex economic drivers of deforestation, scientists unanimously agree cattle-ranching and agriculture are the key culprits. Yet 9 out of 10 times, palm oil is singled out while the other causes of deforestation is sidestepped. Why?

195 million hectares of forests have been cleared from 1990 to 2015 with palm oil responsible for less than four percent of it, according to statistics released by the United Nations yet oil palm takes the fall while other sources of deforestation in a world of smoke and mirrors, are not shone the similarly vigorous spotlight.

Therefore, the key is to concurrently invest in medium to long-term systems that can help identify and expose the power brokers and their proxies behind the anti-palm oil interest groups. One at a time, the tide can be turned by professionally refuting and meticulously discrediting these individuals and the institutions supporting them and thus, their underlying agenda.

However, objectionable tactics such as smearing and intimidating should be avoided at all cost since this could generate a hostile backlash, an additional distraction the multi-billion dollar palm oil industry cannot afford.

Furthermore, instead of fruitlessly debating green groups and the anti-palm oil NGOs, some of whom operate under the cover of being “anti-deforestation” when it fact they lazily rely on distortions and half-truths on key social issues to align themselves to a certain cause and their donors, the palm oil industry ought to fund a network of small and independent thinktanks.

These overseas-headquartered thinktanks should not be seen as libertarian nor should they engage in ‘greenwashing’ palm oil. Instead, serious and honest thinktanks that believe in the human and development impacts of climate change. Thinktank entities that produce independent research and data, based on logical and empirical evidence, including policy groups and NGOs that justly support palm oil as a sustainable crop.

Just as importantly, honest and actionable research backed by grants and funding that equally appeal to credible botanists, zoologists, primatologists, nutritionists and environmentalists globally let alone academics, media and the masses.

Amplifying such reports will inevitably have a larger impact on reclaiming the global media narrative than reacting to events and negative talking points that demonise palm oil via PR agencies and lobbyists on the palm oil industry payroll.

Put simply, Malaysia and Indonesia need to proactively put out the fire before it starts.

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