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Speech by Senior Manager of Corporate Communications, Carolyn Lim, at NUS Global Asia Institute’s Wee Cho Yaw Business Forum 2023.

In the thick of the haze that engulfed Southeast Asia in 2015, I received a random call on my landline who said, “Why are you working for an evil palm oil company?

The stigma for the palm oil industry is bad enough that it’s seen as “a sin industry” alongside gambling and tobacco.

However, people who work in evil industries are often in a position to do valuable things. Swapping from cigarettes to less risky products is a net gain for health. Changing from chopping down trees to developing zero deforestation strategy is a net gain for climate action.

Today I want to clarify three misconceptions about palm oil.

1. We need to feed the world with a productive crop for global food security

Oil palm is a uniquely productive crop. On a per hectare basis, oil palms are 6-10 times more efficient at producing oil than temperate oilseeds such as rapeseed and sunflower.

If oilseeds were to replace palm, it would require at least 50 million additional hectares of prime farmland to produce the same amount of edible oil.

Ensuring everyone has access to an affordable diet sustainably is one of the most significant challenges that humankind faces today.

The question is not to ban palm but to ask ourselves: How do you grow oil palm sustainably?

2. We’re committed to zero deforestation in our operations and beyond

Over the years, we’ve worked with our suppliers, peers, civil society groups, and local governments to reduce deforestation and tighten the standards.

Indonesia supplies about half of the world’s palm oil. These days, 80% of the country’s refining capacity is run by companies that have pledged “No deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation”, or NDPE for short.

Although Indonesia’s forests are shrinking, the pace has slowed sharply in recent years compared to other tropical countries. In 2021 it fell for a fifth straight year, down by a quarter compared with 2020, according to the NGO World Resources Institute (WRI).

Strikingly, and for the first time, rises in the price of palm oil since 2020 do not appear to have caused more deforestation in Indonesia.

3.  We’re not “a big business” crop

Another misconception is that palm oil is overwhelmingly a “big business” crop. There are about 4 million smallholder growers, nearly all of whom farm individual plots.

In Indonesia, the largest palm oil-producing country, smallholders account for 40% of the total planted area.

We have the most extensive independent smallholders program in Indonesia, working in areas outside our operations to train smallholders.

The fruits of our labor were made possible today because we’ve worked very hard in the past. We had only 10 on the team when I joined the group in 2012. Over the last decade, we’ve grown more than 10 times to about 150 full-time staff working on the Musim Mas sustainability team.

To all the critics of palm oil, if you want to change the world, join an evil palm oil company first.