Facing the onslaught of accusations and black campaigns against the palm oil industry, Indonesia has to actively display its own story and form a positive image for the industry while at the same time, firmly defending its interests, a foreign academic said.

Pietro Paganini speaks at IPOC 2018 about the image of palm oil

“In my opinion, the way the industry is heading towards the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) is great, but I think this industry needs to be active in terms of communication,” said Pietro Paganini, an academic from John Cabot University, Rome, Italy, while speaking on the last day of the Indonesian Palm Oil Conference 14th (IPOC 2018) here.

He said that the industry should communicate not only to consumers but also to companies that boycott palm oil products, whatever their reasons are, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“When NGOs attack, the industry should not stay quiet, they should respond!” Paganini stressed, adding that educating NGOs was also an important thing.

Paganini, also a member of Free For Choice, a think tank in Italy that advocates for consumers’ right to choose based on correct scientific information, said that in Italy, as well as in many other countries in the European region, people have misinformation about palm oil and industry that produces it.

“Companies usually explain that they don’t use palm oil because they want to keep their consumers from saturated fats, but what do we find afterward? 90% of the products produced still contain significantly saturated fats,” he said.

He loudly accused many companies of “tricking” consumers into buying their products. “They make consumers think they have bought products that are environmentally friendly, even though they are not,” he said.

Paganini explained that consumers in Italy have been “contaminated” with the term Free From. “Free from sugar, salt, palm oil, they are obsessed with that term,” he said while joking that when Italians saw a product labeled Free From on the packaging, they would buy it even though there was nothing in the package.

Paganini saw the situation in Europe today as a “branding” war between oil palm and other vegetable oil commodities. “Companies see this issue as their marketing tool that can influence people’s behavior and trends,” he explained.

Paganini believes that sustainable palm oil is the key to achieving the SDGs, but many are not aware of this because the palm oil industry players do not implement a good communication strategy compared to activists.

According to him, many NGOs play a major role in influencing the sustainability of the palm oil industry. For example, from 2016 to the beginning of 2018 the campaign they launched against palm oil, citing the reasons for the commodity not being good for health or the environment, led to a decline in the palm oil imports in Europe from Indonesia.

“We must say: You are wrong!” Paganini said.

He also argued that the government has to be more serious in defending the palm oil industry which is now one of Indonesia’s biggest foreign exchange contributors. “Abandoning the palm oil industry is not a solution. The industry should be maintained and developed. Replacing palm oil commodities with others is not a solution either,” he assured.

Paganini concluded that all the problems that hampered the development of the palm oil industry were its ‘image’. “In building an image, we should know who our enemies are, which obviously not the consumers, for they are actually the victims,” ​​he concluded.

For him, the palm oil producing countries, like Indonesia, have to be able to tell the world that “without palm oil, there is no SDGs”, given the large contribution of this commodity to not only boost the state funds but also to provide employment and livelihoods for millions of people and elevate their well-being.

“The story that you need to tell is that there will be no SDG if palm oil is not available and that we are sustainable palm oil industry. Besides, oil palm is the most sustainable plant,” he concluded.

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