Sustained Media Campaigns Needed to Support Informed Decision Making by Consumers
- NST Business published a thought provoking report by the Consumer Choice Center.
- The Consumer Choice Center (CCC) representative Tarmizi Anuwar’s was quoted as saying that “consumers and industries alike must also be diligent in 'cutting through the noise' to reveal the true value of products”.
- The “noise” he referred to, is on media and social media, where a massive amount of “noise” against palm oil can be plugged into with a simple internet search
Palm oil is a “woke topic” that pays handsomely for media willing to publish provocative headlines on how boycotting anti-palm oil, saves forests and the planet. Billionaires like Bill Gates create headlines with investment announcements like:
- “Palm oil is in almost everything, and it’s devastating rainforests. This Bill Gates-backed company used microbes to create an alternative”
-While the Microsoft news network promotes paid advertising with headlines like Why We Need An Alternative to Palm Oil.
All these “news” by the anti-palm oil crowd, preys upon poorly informed consumers who missed the news that Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s largest palm oil producers, are a beacon of hope in a sea of tropical forest losses. Doubters can read the BBC report.
While mainstream media sources can be called to task to provide factual information, social media is the bigger problem for the palm oil industry.
Take for example, this fellow who posted an anti-palm oil video on LinkedIn. His sensationalized claims against palm oil were tactically destroyed by The Healthy Indian Project who rubbished his claims. The sad note for consumers, is that if The Healthy Indian Project had not fact checked Revant’s claims, the falsehoods he presented, would have stood as facts.
But Revant has an excuse for spreading misinformation as his whole raison d'être is to attract attention which then, pays his salary. This article has refrained from mentioning his name in full as making money off the internet does not distinguish between praise or criticism.
However, when it comes to academicians like Laila Benkrima, Agronomy Consultant, B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation, Simon Fraser University, she does not have a similar excuse when she wrote:
“Ultra-processed foods are not only bad for our bodies, their production damages our environments
One specific additive that has the most environmental impact is palm oil. Palm oil is responsible for deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests. It is the world’s most consumed vegetable oil that can be found in half of our food.
Her quotation of online material shows a cherry picking that should have been done with more care.
-Any casual observer of the vegetable oil industry would have noted that Rainforest Rescue, is equally dead set against soy. The Norwegian group is part of a new global coalition urging the European Union to include “Other Wooded Lands” in its zero deforestation regulation, with a finger pointed at soy.
-In quoting the Nature article merely to highlight deforestation, she should have noted the article text on palm oil which sought a better understanding of palm oil’s impact on global consumer needs and deforestation. Key facts underscored below.
“Palm oil accounts for ~40% of the current global annual demand for vegetable oil as food, animal feed and fuel (210 Mt), but planted oil palm covers less than 5–5.5% of the total global oil crop area (approximately 425 Mha) due to oil palm’s relatively high yields.”
-In quoting Jonathan E. Robins, Associate Professor of Global History, Michigan Technological University promotion of his book where she obtained the line “world’s most consumed vegetable oil that can be found in half of our food” Laila should have noted what Jonathan said regarding palm oil.
"However, the IUCN and many other advocates argue that shifting away from palm oil is not the answer. Since oil palm is so productive, they contend, switching to other oil crops could cause even more harm because it would require more land to cultivate substitutes."
The references she provided clearly do not support her views but where Laila failed to make a convincing argument on her views on vegetable oils and human health, is the absence of any mention on how seed oils, the go-to replacement for palm oil, has been identified in numerous studies as being bad for human health. The controversies around seed oils like soy, sunflower or rapeseed is enough to warrant mainstream media like the Times of India to report on their negative health impact.
Meanwhile, the environmental harms of substitutes for palm oil is evidenced by the Nature article she quoted where palm oil covers only 5-5.5% of total global oil crop areas.
Better reports like this, from Huffington Post shows, there are no clear cut answers for healthy consumption of vegetable oils.
As for the “world’s most consumed vegetable oil that can be found in half of our food” this does not apply to ultra processed foods in Canada where sunflower, canola and soy are ubiquitous in ultra processed foods.
This is the biggest challenge for consumer interest groups like The Consumer Choice Center. How should the “true value” of palm oil be presented when academicians like Laila present half-truths? After all, her opinion is easily accessible to the Malaysian housewife who wants to prepare healthy meals.
What of the financial interests of billionaires and social media influencers, both of which stand to gain simply with taking an anti-palm oil position?
Occasional news posts on how Indonesia and Malaysia are leading the protection of forests, gets buried quickly by the incessant barrage of negative news on palm oil.
A solution might be a long, sustained information campaign by palm oil industry stakeholders. The effort by the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Fund is noteworthy in this respect, but more funding and projects of this nature, would be needed to unseat the decades of anti-palm oil narratives.
The findings of the research team, led by Göttingen University, is an excellent example of this. The research team investigated consumer understanding of sustainable palm oil in Germany. They found that flashing an information card or an eco-logo on a label would not be sufficient to inform consumers.
The only way for consumers in Germany or Asia and Southeast Asia to make informed decisions, is for palm oil producers to counter the misinformation brigade by continuing to walk the talk on sustainability and share those efforts on all media platforms.
Published September, 2023 CSPO Watch