Part 2: The EU Can Save Tropical Forests Through Multilateral Agreements

The EU wants to save tropical forests from Southeast Asia to Africa in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The current crop of politicians guiding forest and deforestation policies have highlighted the EU’s consumption of palm oil for food and fuel as a target much to the chagrin of palm oil producing countries.

The anti-palm oil position adopted by the EU can only be described as discriminatory when it sidelines much bigger causes of tropical deforestation in soy and beef and ignores hunger in tropical countries as a cause of biodiversity loss and deforestation.

Were it not for the vocal protestations of palm oil producing countries against the obvious discrimination hurled at a crop, palm oil imports into EU countries would have surely faced severe restrictions in order to protect European interests in other vegetable oils. An unusual source of support for the palm oil industry has been European environmental groups which are alarmed at the steep decline of biodiversity in Europe due to the impact of the vegetable oil industries in Europe.

Damning Tropical Countries to Hunger

As the European Union looks for solutions, it has opened up a period for public consultation on EU action against deforestation.

‘According to the European Commission (EC), forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Activities related to forestry and other land use – primarily deforestation – were responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions, which makes them the second major cause of climate change after the burning of fossil fuels.’

What will cause the EU’s ambitions to save forests to fail is its refusal to see the people in tropical forests. A Eurocentric approach that views tropical forests only as carbon sinks and not people in need of food and fuel will ensure the failure of its approach.

The much vaunted Common Agricultural Policy with its goals to protect European farmers with heavy subsidies has been accused of fueling hunger in Africa as subsidized European crops drive down crop prices for African farmers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the case of milk exports from Europe to Africa.

Saving Forests and Biodiversity Together

The EU will only succeed in saving tropical forests when it abandons its heavy-handed unilateral approach to “saving forests and biodiversity” in developing countries.

In its pending assessment on removing deforestation from EU imports, the EU must acknowledge information from sound reports like “The Geopolitics of Palm Oil and Deforestation” and consider palm oil producing countries not merely as carbon sinks but places with people who need development.

There are no illusions that the farmer in Southeast Asia or Latin America who grows oil palm to feed the global need for vegetable oils should get the same monetary returns as their counterparts in Europe. The only thing the palm oil smallholder asks for is a fair price for their harvests which in most cases, is much less than the minimum salaries of farm workers in the rich North.

As for the stated noble goal of saving tropical forests to fight climate change, a new study has shown that European forests can have a greater and immediate impact on climate change if broad leaf treed forests were expanded in Europe. Their capacity to offset the emissions of Europeans is an intriguing solution for the future but it may call on European countries to set aside bigger land areas which will conflict with the European Union’s goal towards food and fuel self-sufficiency.

The European Palm Oil Alliance which is a business initiative of palm oil refiners and producers has also raised the issue in a recent statement where it stated that:

“The EU must avoid shifting sustainability issues to other commodities. Let’s get a fair, wide-ranging regulatory framework in place for all production and consumption that is related to deforestation.”

This regulatory framework is absolutely essential in order for the EU to have a positive impact on forests especially those in the tropics.

Agriculture, whether involving palm oil or rapeseed is undeniably part of the reasons why biodiversity is on the brink according to the Living Planet Report 2020. What is also undeniable is the fact that the top palm oil producing countries Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Colombia still hold much of their endemic biodiversity compared to tropical countries that produce little or no palm oil.

In terms of using forests to mitigate the impacts of climate change, palm oil has shown that it is the best crop for preserving forests and biodiversity compared to other vegetable crops. Its natural efficiency to produce more plant-based oils than other crops to meet consumer demands does not discriminate between energy needs in developed countries or an affordable cooking oil in third world nations. 

The misinformation spread by European lobby groups appear to have sadly clouded the views of policymakers in Europe who continue to target palm oil imports as a priority to save tropical forests. This is an unfortunate stance which palm oil producing countries hope will change as facts and truths are presented.

The stark facts are that the global palm oil industry has only caused 2.3% of global deforestation. As for total land footprint, palm oil is grown on 0.4% of the 5 billion hectares utilized to meet the global demands for food and fuel.

This simply means that even if all the land used to grow palm oil from Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America were to be converted back into forests as a “nature based solution,” it would fall way short of the urgent need to address climate change and biodiversity loss. This is a fact that must be accepted by the EU as it develops its Farm2Fork strategy under the European Green Deal.

Palm oil producing countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia are up to the challenge to prove that palm oil is a crop that is needed as a solution for a future that is sustainable for all of us on this fragile planet.