The Palm Scribe

Cowspiracy and the palm oil industry

“Suggest you watch the documentary “Cowspiracy” if you have Netflix,” said the cryptic message from a friend of mine in the palm oil industry.

ILLUSTRATION. Tractor working in a palm oil plantation.

I took his suggestion, watched the documentary that allegedly exposes the hypocrisy of the world’s largest environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network in attacking industries such as palm oil, pulp and paper and mining for deforestation while steering clear of the biggest culprit of deforestation – animal agriculture.

There, in the documentary, officially called Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, is a lesson and a half for palm oil growers on how to deal with the likes of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. But first a bit about the documentary.

Made in 2014, the thrust of the documentary posits an important question: Since animal agriculture is the main driver of environmental destruction (from the methane emissions, water consumption, deforestation because of land needed to feed and graze cattle) why are these NGOs not going after the cattle industry as they do the palm oil, pulp and paper and mining industries?

The answer, says one of the people they interviewed, The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, is that their inaction is spurred by fear of losing members and funds.

“I think they focus grouped it and it’s a political loser,” Pollan says early in the documentary. “They are membership organizations…they are looking to maximize the number of people making contributions and if they get identified as anti-meat or challenging people on their everyday habits, something that is so dear to people that it will hurt with their fund raising.”

This becomes evident when the filmmakers went to interview the NGOs. Greenpeace refused to be interviewed by them (imagine what Greenpeace would say if a palm oil grower does the same to Greenpeace or to reporters spurred on by Greenpeace’s latest reports on the palm oil industry). The Sierra Club was baffled that animal agriculture should be an environmental issue.

When the filmmakers approached The Rainforest Action Network, its executive director had a difficult time when asked whether animal agriculture or fossil fuels was the main driver of environmental destruction. They also questioned why in the NGOs website they focused on Palm Oil, pulp and paper, coal and tar sands as the main environmental threats. Cattle raising was nowhere in sight.

Deforestation caused by palm and animal agriculture.

Hola, beautiful piece. actually I feel a bit guilty because this is something I already had covered while still with Beritasatu TV during an interview with the Ambo of Brazil, who had loved to throw dirt on fellow Latin American and main beef producer Argentine. It just slipped in the dark recess of my mind.

Being a skeptical person, after watching the documentary I surfed the web trying to find information to debunk the claims made in Cowspiracy. There was very little and what was astounding was the silence of the NGOs. The only response I could find was from Robin Oakley, the Greenpeace program Director in the UK. In a blogpost entitled Cows, Conspiracies and Greenpeace he tried to call into question one of the sets of figures quoted by the filmmakers. Judging from the comments he’s received, that line of argument didn’t go very far.

What can the palm oil industry learn from this documentary?

My take is that the most valuable lesson would be that these NGOs have feet of clay.

The documentary shows how vulnerable the NGOs are because of their hypocrisy about animal agriculture. Each time they raise the specter of deforestation by palm oil, all the industry has to do is quote the extent of destruction caused by animal agriculture that they are afraid to address, and their moral high ground will be pulled from under them.

This should be done not to give the industry an excuse to be unsustainable, but to change the outlook of the industry.

As things stand, the whole palm oil industry seems to be cowed (no pun intended) by the NGOs. They are traumatized to say anything or to stick their heads above the parapet for fear of being attacked by the NGOs. It is as if the NGOs are these powerful, invulnerable entities that they must bow to and never anger.

As a result, the industry ends up playing defense. It seems to be perpetually defending itself against allegations of unsustainable practices, deforestation, slavery, forest fires, planting on peat, violating high carbon value standards…the list goes on and is so exhausting that at the end of the day the industry has no time or energy to discuss the issues that matter.

Taking the NGOs to task for unfairly attacking the palm oil industry may, however, stop them from looking at the industry as a soft target. If this happens then the palm oil industry will be in a position to deal with the NGOs more like equals rather than with the mentality of the bullied.

If this should happen then it can begin to address the issues that matter. Issues such as how to increase the productivity of palm oil plantations, how to balance development, economic and environmental needs and how to help address the world shortage in edible oils.

Author: Ong Hock Chuan

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