The World Health Organisation’s recent Bulletin contained an article focused on the palm oil sector. The article was full of errors, omissions, assumptions, and other evidence of bias. The fact that those biases exist is a major problem – but the wider problem is the following:
The WHO article’s stated concern was that the palm oil industry focuses on “lobbying”, to the detriment of scientific evidence. And yet … here is an article from the WHO focused exclusively on regurgitating the talking points of anti-palm oil lobbyists, while ignoring voluminous scientific evidence that highlights the benefits of palm oil.
The lack of self-awareness is painful.
On the substance of the WHO’s concerns, let’s start by looking at the issue of poverty.
The WHO authors actually complain that the palm oil sector uses ‘poverty alleviation arguments’. In this, the WHO is correct. Palm oil cultivation has lifted millions out of poverty, provided an income for small farmers and rural communities, and helped Africans, Asians and others build better, healthier lives for themselves and their children.
Is the WHO saying this is a bad thing? Perhaps the organization needs reminding that poverty is one of the most significant drivers of poor health. As the World Bank states “Poverty is a major cause of ill health and a barrier to accessing health care”. Palm oil has a unique double-benefit because both producers and many consumers are based in the developing world: the producers (small farmers in Malaysia or Indonesia) receive income, which helps improve their health; and the consumers (often poorer people in India or Africa) receive key nutrients including Vitamin E tocotrienols and tocopherols, which also improves their health.
Lifting millions of people out of poverty – as the palm oil sector has achieved – does more for improving global health than any WHO bureaucracy ever could.
Perhaps the WHO criticism is that palm oil countries talk too much about poverty alleviation. Again, the Malaysian palm oil sector is guilty as charged: for years Malaysia has provided data points, studies, articles and so on, to highlight how the country built successful rural communities and economies using oil palm. The ‘Malaysian model’ of oil palm cultivation is being studied and replicated in many poor countries globally, as a means to replicate Malaysia’s success in reducing poverty from 50% down to less than 5% in just a few decades.
Surely, this too should be celebrated by WHO? Sharing information and knowledge on proven poverty alleviation efforts will help to improve health in poor countries. Instead, though, the WHO falls back on the tired anti-palm oil attacks.
The WHO next criticizes palm oil in the context of trans fats. Just to be clear, trans fats have been universally condemned as deleterious for human health. Palm oil naturally has zero trans fats, but can fulfil the same function in food preparation. Again, the simplest answer here is the correct one: this is a clear win for human health. The WHO article, however, once again ignores this positive (which has been accepted by … the WHO’s Recommendations) – focusing instead on an assertion that ‘the palm oil industry may benefit from increased sales’. Are the WHO authors claiming they would prefer lower health outcomes, or a reintroduction of trans fats…?
Not content with ignoring the prevailing, positive evidence on health and poverty, the WHO article moves on to repeating the anti-palm oil lobbyists’ talking points on environment. It is almost a copy-past of the extremist NGO attacks on palm oil that have been debunked repeatedly.
Allegations made include of large-scale burning and haze – despite the reality, which is that Malaysia has a strict no-burn law. This established fact of law is ignored by WHO. Then the article includes allegations of large-scale deforestation – despite the reality, which is that the United Nations forest assessment shows that Malaysia’s forest area is increasing, and remains far higher that most Western nations. Again, this established fact is ignored by WHO, in favour of anti-palm oil talking points. The claim of 100,000 deaths from haze one year have been thoroughly discredited, including by Health Ministries in the countries themselves. If the WHO authors had been prepared to do a little research, this all could have been discovered quite easily.
Once more, the positive and verified facts about oil palm cultivation are simply ignored. A crop that uses less land (meaning more can be kept for conservation); fewer pesticides (which the WHO has admitted is a good thing); and less fertilizer – surely, this is to be mentioned in any article about palm oil and health? No. The WHO article ignores these facts, sticking to its anti-palm oil taking points.
In many ways, the article at least is honest about its bias. Throughout the article, anti-palm oil NGOs are quoted approvingly, and at length, despite the fact that they have no scientific standing. Whereas any published research with even a small link to the palm oil sector is condemned. This is a classic case of a judgment based not on evidence, but on pre-existing prejudice (“NGOs good; palm oil bad”).
To summarise, the WHO does not dispute the proven evidence that palm oil reduces poverty, replaces trans fats, and helps conserve land by being more efficient. Any balanced evaluation would conclude this is a valuable crop. Instead, the WHO article compares palm oil to alcohol and tobacco. The tocotrientols in red palm oil provide essential vitamins to nutrient-deprived communities across the developing world … but the WHO lazily compares this to a cigarette? It would be laughable if it were not so irresponsible.
However, there is one saving grace. The WHO authors admit that “We need to better understand … palm oil products.” Yes, from this article, it is clear that you do.