Notes on Mindset Public Talk’s “Roundtable on academia and palm oil sustainability”

LiLing Ong attended the event and took notes. Very generously, she shared them here. Please be aware that not all information may be accurate.


Notes on Mindset Public Talk’s “Roundtable on academia and palm oil sustainability”

UTM – Dr Sune Hanson

  • Sime Darby – Dr Harikrishna Kulaveerasingam
  • Sime Foundation conducting independent RM $2.5 million
  • funding chair in climate change in UKM. Zero waste in oil mills. More as a team and not silos. Trying to develop technology so outcome is zero waste. Advanced composting to hydrogen in affluent ponds
  • SPOM Sustainable PO Manifesto and Unilever. 2 Co chairs. Study independent of funders. Trying to find balance between development and sustainability
  • Since 1980s Sime Darby developed zero burning. Carey Island nirvana for oil palm. Bund up area as 5 feet below sea level. Yields are over 30 tonnes in some areas. Developed extensive platforms and technologies for water management, parasitic pests eg wasps, and developed various methane capture and utilisation
  • A lot of research tends to be silos. Needs to be more work in social benefits that accrue from development

EcoKnights – Yasmin Rashid

  • Palm Oil largest contributor to gross national income
  • more than 100 years research into supercrop
  • more dairy products, chocs and cakes which u cannot resist
  • 4 key issues in sustainability
    • 1. Lack of talent. Huge research and hard science. Not just in academia but ministries.
    • 2. Little NGO and academia collaboration. Not enough constructive participation in this field
    • 3. Production landscape is exhausted. Supply cannot chase demand
    • 4. Palm oil has all time low in terms of perception index. Went to Brussels as MPOB asked to present on palm oil. 80% anti palm oil but does not know. Billions do not know of impact.
  • 5 solutions to address this:
    • There needs to be more accurate aware. 8 out of 10 influence by anti palm oil propaganda. Very disruptive
    • Needs more public engagement. Need to know why forest is being cleared eg hydroelectric dams
    • Need for more academic engagement. Engineers and students and academics in same room. Palm oil is here to stay
    • Need to raise more interest and attract more talent. Land rights and consumer perception and labelling of products which does not fall under realm of academic science
    • Palm oil under Ministry of Commodity but NRR gets slammed the most during the Haze. Should there be a anchor institution? Yes.


UKM – Dr Hawati Johor

  • Starting April 2013, research enhanced by MPOB endowment to do research in this sector
  • Regarding focus on hard science in this industry, we at Faculty of economic development focus on social science
  • we give funding to researchers at UKM, and to avoid silo we encourage collaborative efforts from outsiders
  • central theme of research activities of chair is focusing on socio economic development
  • We have 4 clusters
    • 1. Policy and regulations
    • 2. Income and business potentials. Research on productivity of small settlers
    • 3. Environmental sustainability and focus on socio economic sustainability
    • 4. Community development


RSPO – Dr Sanath Kumaran

  • Established in 2004.
  • international certification scheme, like ISO for oil palm
  • not including government
  • make decisions through concensus and working groups
  • have standard that defines sustainable palm oil. Revised 2013
  • this document defines all aspects on sustainability
  • governed by board of governors. Committed to support small holders also.
  • have suspended non communicating members
  • I am head of Impacts. We have certified 2.3 million hectares
  • 12 million tonnes certified. Which is 20% of world supply
  • We welcome collaboration and independent research
  • we signed MOU with UTM. We inject science into our standards
  • Social impacts will be there to the people and land.
  • 60% of complaints revolving around community consent, giving free
  • Second headache is High conservation value assessments – not being done or shortcuts
  • We have blind spots that is why we have complaints
  • We have collaborated with consortium of researches to look at impact of RSPO
  • Hope we can demonstrate we will get to where we want to go


Questions and answers

1. Does sustainability also go on to company practices?

Dr Sanath

  • RSPO has standards which is accessible
  • types of standards for retailers to end users
  • defines compliance to national laws, good agricultural practices, identification to biodiversity values, new planting procedures, need to do EIA, strong commitment for continuous improvement, all members need to submit annually. It has to be declared and challenging eg by 2020 to be 100% certified. Entire group must be certified by certain time frame.

2. Ning to Dr Sanath – how much of RSPO produce is for Malaysia and how much is exported?

Dr Sanath

  • Sime Darby is one of the biggest members of RSPO. We track from the mill as that is the point of certification
  • There is also supply chain certification
  • Amount produced by Indonesia and Malaysia is 85%
  • Much of it is not labelled as certified
  • China, India and Indonesia buy more than 80%. The remainder to EU and rest of world
  • Need to form alliance
  • Just formed office in Beijing and Mumbai

3. Guy in suit to Dr Sanath – can we use these programmes to bring back as much consistency as possible

Dr Sanath

  • Just established special projects division. Any research can be submitted to us but we cannot guarantee funds will be provided. We do not encourage every square inch to be developed
  • We would like to see a mosaic

4. If we now have to convert some oil palm plantation to forest do we have any procedures ?

Dr Harikrishna

  • Some steep areas the natural vegetation allowed to grow back. You leave all these patches here and there are they productive?

5. I as consumer I want to see where it comes from. I would like to see some standards.

Dr Sanath

  • we have trademark procedures. Plenty of work needs to be done to educate customers

Dr Hari

  • we produce bulk products and companies like Unilever do packaging. They goto markets not sensitive about sustainability eg Middle East. Traceability, we announced there is a screen to follow consignment to estate to dockyard to ship. All transparently done for customers. Almost 80% of oil is traceable. Australian company came up with App where u scan label.

6. Helena from UK – mention of independent research. How closely do you follow up with research if there are results that are contrary to your practice? Do you sponsor non independent research?

Dr Hari

  • Independent comes out from what came out from pharmaceutical industry where what we think is independent is not independent. Researchers get holidays. Hence emphasis on word independent. The work in sabah is ongoing. Information not available yet. From SPOM study which is desktop study of existing publications, there are different methods which we will trial. We will deploy some of these approaches

7. Patrick O Reilly – would you consider access and benefit sharing channel. If you are spending money anyway there is always the suggestion that that research may not be as independent as it is. It will be perceived as being influenced by sponsor. Why not challenge it to independent body

Dr Hari

  • workable model. Industry members want to see world done which addresses main concerns. I am molecular biologist. The research was expensive and had to beg money from CFO who asked when is product coming out ? If you can provide comfort that there is end point there may be more traction

8. NRR now has conservation trust fund. On land use, in 2009 Najib said 40% reduciton and that we will maintain 50% land under forest cover. A lot of social studies need to be done. A lot of local people have social issues eg drug addiction. No policy intervention from the top. Whilst RSPO is there, what is MSPO about

Dr Sune

  • We need strong interlink between government and academia and industry. Government is not listening to academia enough. Is MPOB big enough on these issues eg improving planting and genomes etc. Academia has a lot more resources available and government can take us more seriously

Dr Hawati

  • on social problems we have research on social economic problems. We have seen that the social problems research are still under research. Majority of research proposals in area of income where they focus on community and small holder on how to create awareness on entrepreneur skills. Propose tourism activities for small holders. On anti palm oil issues, I have seen 3 research focusing on this issue. In terms of looking at media, the words they are using to highlight issues of palm oil. That is on anti palm oil. We have research on promoting marketing aspects. We concentrate on supply chain, the shelf space etc. We focused on social issues on first and second generation of settlers, we want to educate the second generation and what are the factors influencing them from going into this sector. We have a industry journal at MPOB. Our KPI is on academic journal. That is part of reason why publication has problems. In terms of high impact journals , limited number in circulation.

Miss Yasmin

  • want to highlight we are not lacking in research and publication but what is mode of communication to Consumers. Missing link on effective communication on these studies. Communicate in layman terms might be game changing experience to transfer the power of advocating or being anti palm oil to the public. Who is taking the lead on this ? With academia there is disconnect to. Lady called me up on perception on MSPO. Many were not consulted. Inclusively is important

9. Animah Kosai – when Haze got bad many citizens were outraged. Ordinary Malaysian knows very little. Media focusing on API. Malaysians and Singaporeans will be interested to know where the palm oil comes from. Anti Haze action group has done some research but we want to engage RSPO more. What is going on in Indonesia is affecting us badly and murky in terms of concessions. What are they trying to do to prevent burning in Peatlands etc

Dr Hari

  • We fund programme in uni of Riyal to make farmers understand what to do to prevent fires,it was effective, all fires outside our areas. We have hotspot monitors for all our estates from PNG to Liberia. If there is anything burning there is communication with people on ground. We are committed to fight fires 5 km outside our boundary

Dr Sanath

  • we are committed to transparency of concession boundary map. We pushed members to publish the map so we can protect our members (who is burning and who is not burning ).

10. Crops for the future lady – is palm oil the problem? If we replace with durian will there be anti durian propaganda?

Dr Sune

  • One of the central questions. REDD schemes going on but not effeftive as it requires people to pay. We are working hard to answer your question but cannot do it today

Comment from Steffi

  • when u intensely grow something it will cause problems regardless of species. When it comes to sustainability argument in terms of certification it means people do not need to moderate intake. Even with RSPO there are massive problems but fact is you can still grow palm oil peat, monoculture and biodiversity law. Consumers need knowledge to make informed decisions

Comment – on being monoculture, biggest consumers are China and India. Palm oil consumed as it is cheapest Commodity. If there is cheaper alternative in future then demand will drop quickly? Any research on future economics ? Research on diversification?


  • CEO of Ferrero Rocher, willing to try alternative to palm oil but so far none. Suspect industry is trying to find alternative. Other oils too expensive. Ferrero will not taste the same without palm oil.

Dr Hari

  • we are over a 100 years old. Does not make sense for us to be not ecology friendly. Many disruptive technologies out there. We are aware of this, we have active programmes to look at it

Dr Hawati

  • what happens if ? It is not possible in next ten years to have alternative. Research in tandem with EPP. Focusing on helping people have high income status by 2020. Benefits for palm oil central focus

11. Government do not use academia findings. Can EcoKnights play role to link ?

12. Moderator – the focus of research so far tended to be in this part of the world. Problems coming up in frontier areas eg west Africa, Latin America. Are we focusing too much attention to this region ? Of course lessons learned from this region. Can South East Asia support other parts of the world with all our learnings

Dr Hari

  • lots of work to be done. Lots of issues in Liberia which is war torn country, cannot have discourse with them. New diseases crop up

Closing remarks

Dr Sune

  • how room reach Africans or south Americans? Making sure they have platform and create network and access. Problem is funding as we rely on national funding. This whole collaboration and linkages with academia. More than 1000 researchers can we bring it to something applicable

Dr Hari

  • key issue is lack of connection between the researchers doing hard science and consumers. Needs to bridge


  • 1. Will labelling change consumer behaviour or only europeans
  • 2. More emphasis on multidisciplinary research. We had conversation with DOE through media and then they invited us on board. Must be better way for cohesiveness
  • 3. Is there independence in journals? Not everyone in academia so who takes charge at communicating benefits of palm oil. Agencies find it hard to spin
  • 4. Is it localised issue or public perception? Recent survey on are Singaporeans demanding Haze free or palm oil free products ?

Dr Hawati

  • Silo research being done, under chair of MPOB UKM we address problem by more research on economics
  • how to disseminate research to people out there
  • I will propose to researchers on how to disseminate research

Dr Sanath

  • many countries come together for trade agreements so why can’t researchers come together
  • only 1.1% on R&D. Target for 2020 is 2%. This tells you about our priorities
  • on yields, it has plateue past 30 years. If it can grow in Europe or USA it will be fully automated and still a lot to improve


Moderator summary

  • Palm oil is not going anywhere as there is no alternative
  • raising talent and specialism. It is leading vegetable oil crop. One third by weight is palm oil
  • socio economic is a priority also.
  • point on independent research. Models of funding and whole administers
  • research institutes and problem of how university communities. Can we have one pager that Dr Hari can receive instead of 15 pages at first instance
  • emerging areas and little research in new geography. Not inclusive of everyone. How can we get other groups involved in this conversation eg small holder? How to increase size of conversation

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