ON April 19, the European Union Parliament passed a regulation meant to limit deforestation and forest degradation, singling out palm oil as a major driving force.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusoff, who is plantation industries and commodities minister, slammed the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) as "unjust to the palm oil industry in Malaysia", and a "deliberate effort to increase costs and erect barriers to the entry of Malaysia's palm oil into the EU" with "an adverse impact on the livelihoods of 450,000 smallholders in the industry".
As one who grew up in the 1960s in Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia's largest oil palm production state, I have an emotional attachment to the palm oil issue.
It was during that time that the then prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, launched the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) scheme, including mass planting of exotic oil-bearing palm from West Africa in Malaysia's jungles under the slogan "land for the landless and jobs for the jobless".
And when the world met at the 2015 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, Mal-aysians, thanks to palm oil, could boast that we had been making progress against Goal #1 (poverty alleviation) since independence in 1957.
Distinguished Professor Datuk Dr Rajah Rasiah, a Universiti Malaya economist, said the poverty level income was RM50 in 1970, and RM2,208 in 2020.
Our poverty rate dropped from 49 per cent in 1970 to 5.6 per cent in 2020.
Further, during times of economic turmoil, such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the palm oil sector proved a saviour of our socio-economic wellbeing.
It would not be a surprise, therefore, if most Malaysians support Fadillah's statement.
He called for EU exemptions for palm oil smallholders in the EUDR to prevent large European importers from monopolising the supply chain.
He stressed steps such as the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification programme, reflecting "our commitment to comprehensive sustainability standards".
The EU and United States have attributed inaccurate and discriminatory greenhouse gas (GHG) savings values (19 and 17 per cent, respectively) to palm oil, thereby denying access to both places' biofuels markets.
Research by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and independent experts demonstrates that the values are much higher — 60.4 and 74.7 per cent GHG savings to palm oil produced with and without methane capture.
The palm oil industry is accustomed to accusations of unsustainable practices, such as the destruction of wildlife habitat, particularly that of the orang utan.
In Sabah and Sarawak, where the orang utan are found, however, steps are being taken to set aside sanctuaries, national parks and forest reserves.
It should be noted, too, that thanks to research and development, it is now possible to grow higher-yielding oil palm, lessening pressure to open new land, and to maintain more than 50 per cent of the country's landmass under forest cover.
And palm oil uses less land than crop-based oilseeds. Only 0.26ha is required to produce a tonne of palm oil while soybean, sunflower and rapeseed need 2.2ha, 2ha and 1.5ha respectively to produce the same amount of oil.
We trod a similar path decades ago when the US soybean lobby campaigned against palm oil on health grounds.
Under the leadership of Professor Tan Sri Augustine Ong, much of the disinformation spread by the soybean lobby was debunked by the painstaking gathering of scientific evidence.
The three-year (1986 to 1989) disinformation war ended with a victory for the oil palm industry.
Let's also, however, concede the merits of the EU's efforts.
The EUDR stipulates that companies exporting products to Europe produce a due diligence statement showing their supply chains are not contributing to deforestation, or risk hefty fines.
This applies equally to palm oil, soybean, beef, wood, cocoa and coffee.
All countries exporting to the EU are affected.
Some regional observers welcome the EUDR "as part of a global commitment to reduce deforestation and increase transparency in commodity mar-kets".
The government is aware that, in our quest for socio-economic development, there is also an urgent need to protect nature.
In light of these new international challenges to an important industry, this is the time to initiate dialogue based on scientific evidence and diplomacy.
The writer is the founding director of the International Institute of Science Diplomacy and Sustainability at UCSI University and the fifth holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in international studies at ISIS, Malaysia