Malaysia's Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Teresa Kok warns Europe not to punish Malaysia's palm oil farmers as the EU implements new environmental laws

Brussels (AFP) - Palm oil powerhouse Malaysia urged Europe on Thursday not to forget the world’s farmers when it strives to meet its Green Deal ambition for carbon neutrality.

The European Union in December embarked on an major plan committing member states to build a carbon neutral economy by 2050 along with other climate-friendly measures including a boost in investment.

This would be in addition to Brussels existing commitment to ban palm oil as a biofuel in Europe by 2030, a plan that has angered Malaysia, the world’s second biggest palm oil producer after Indonesia.

“When we talk about Green Deal and we talk about sustainability we are talking about touching the lives of the people,” Teresa Kok, the Malaysian minister responsible for palm oil told AFP.

The EU “should not … forget about the life of the people, especially the poor,” said Kok, who was in Brussels on a mission to win a change of attitude in Europe towards palm oil.

Palm oil is a major ingredient in a wide range of products from food to cosmetics but it has long been controversial.

Environmentalists say it drives deforestation, with huge swathes of rainforest logged in recent decades to make way for plantations.

Its use in food and cosmetics has already dropped in Europe, partly due to pressure from green groups on major corporations, but has been increasing in biofuels.

Kok insisted to AFP that palm oil farming has turned a corner in Malaysia with over two-thirds of dedicated land now certified as sustainable.

This was despite about 40 percent of output being farmed by smallholders that are often illiterate and of an older generation.

They are being pushed “to implement the sustainability measures … so I hope the EU can appreciate all the efforts by the Malaysian government and also the industry,” she said.

- ‘Which is more sustainable?’ -

Kok said she was in Brussels to “engage” with EU officials, but added that Malaysia was poised to join Indonesia in fighting the bloc’s anti-palm oil policies at the World Trade Organization.

She said her government “will decide later” on whether the country would go to WTO court, but that she hoped the EU would recognise Malaysian certification on sustainable palm oil farming.

“Our honest response … is that we hope we don’t need to go to the WTO but we can get the (Malaysian) MSPO standard be accepted by EU,” she said.

Kok said she believed that the EU’s palm oil phase out was protectionist as Europeans choose to promote oils from their own soybean, rapeseed and sunflower crops.

“Because if they really believe in sustainability, they should choose palm oil,” she said.

“Your soybean, your sunflower, you have to plant every year, but for us the tree will be there producing oil for 25 years. Which one is more sustainable?”

Experts say that soybean and rapeseed crops would require 10 times the amount of land to produce the same yield as palm oil.