Malaysia can’t win palm oil war, say experts

Denis Murphy of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board delivered the Tan Sri B.C. Sekhar Memorial Lecture.

KUALA LUMPUR: Experts in the palm oil industry have urged Malaysia to avoid a trade war but instead look at rebranding, increasing yields and extending the life span of oil palms.

Denis Murphy, who chairs the Malaysian Oil Palm Board biology advisory committee, said yields of the crop had been stagnant for almost 20 years and new ways to increase yields must be found.

“We don’t have to convert more land for replanting. We have the resources to increase yield. But this is not happening. The industry needs to move forward,” he said at the 5th Tan Sri B C Sekhar Memorial Lecture 2019.

He also advised Malaysia not to fight any country over the palm oil ban. “You are not big enough to win. Focus on being smart,” he said.

Murphy further suggested looking at ways to extend the life span of oil palm trees so that they are not cut down every 25 years.

He said there have been instances of deforestation in Sabah and Sarawak and in Indonesia to make way for oil palms but NGOs have now also included Peninsular Malaysia as a major culprit of deforestation.

Murphy urged the industry not to aim at selling biodiesel to car manufacturers in Europe, as the factories there were now rolling out power efficient cars.

Murphy also called on rebranding of palm oil just like the way Columbia had branded their coffee.

“It is premium coffee. There is also traceability of which farm it comes from,” he said, adding that this increases trust of the product.

The forum was moderated by Mohd Bakke Salleh, executive deputy chairman and managing director of Sime Darby Plantations Berhad.

One of the questions raised was about the best-case and worst-case scenario for the palm oil industry over five years.

Murphy said the worst-case scenario would be that Malaysia could lose the market if it carried on with business as usual. Or it could “clean up its act and form partnerships with NGOs.”

Another speaker, M R Chandra, senior advisor of 27 Advisory Sdn Bhd, said the industry lacked people of calibre and those who are passionate about the industry.

“Now people are busy sorting our foreign worker issues,” he said, pointing to a study conducted in Sabah three years ago which showed that 18% of crops was not harvested.

Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok later told reporters that she would look at their suggestions.

She also said that her ministry will follow up with the Russian government who had shown interest in using bio-fuel for military airplanes.

Kok was also asked about concerns that many Malaysians shied away from using palm oil for cooking.

She said her ministry will hold talks with doctors who may not be aware of the health benefits of palm oil, such as protection against heart disease, suppression of cancer and other properties.