European Moves to Restrict Palm Oil Have Enraged Malaysia and Indonesia
By Joe Sandler Clarke
"Don't expect us to continue buying European products," Malaysia's former plantations minister Mah Siew Keong told reporters in January last year. His comments came just after he had accused the EU of "practising a form of crop apartheid."
A few months later Luhut Pandjaitan, an Indonesian government minister close to President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, warned his country would retaliate if it was "cornered" by the EU.
In the past two years the European Commission and several European countries have weighed up plans to restrict imports of palm oil amid growing concern about the environmental impact of the crop. But the world's biggest producers launched an aggressive diplomatic pushback, threatening to cancel deals worth billions for everything from salmon to fighter jets.
Groups backed by the Malaysian government launched social media campaigns against European government officials and a well-known supermarket, at the same time.
Unearthed has pieced together the story of the diplomatic spat through conversations with stakeholders, politicians and official emails.
Palm oil is a cheap and versatile vegetable oil, derived from the oil palm tree that grows easily in the tropics. It has seeped into everything over the last two decades, from chocolate bars to jet fuel.
In the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, global palm oil production increased from 15.2 million tons to 62.6 million tons. It's been estimated that 50 percent of all packaged goods sold in western supermarkets contain palm oil.
Some conservationists say palm oil is a good alternative to other environmentally unfriendly crops, because it uses less land than other vegetable oils.
However, its environmental impact on Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce about 85 percent of the world's palm oil, has been marked; contributing to a big increase in deforestation in both countries. Today, Indonesia is the world's fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to land use change. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2017 the country lost 24.4 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover, equivalent to 2.44 gigatons of CO₂ emissions. Malaysia lost 7.29Mha of tree cover in the same period.
A study published in February last year in the journal Cell Biology found that 150,000 Borneo orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015, partly as a result of the expansion of the palm oil trade. The IUCN states that 193 critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable animals — including African forest elephants and chimpanzees — are directly threatened by palm oil.
As well as the obvious environmental disruption, the dramatic growth of the palm oil sector has reshaped the political and economic systems of both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Today palm oil exports make up between 5 percent and 7 percent of GDP in both countries. Helena Varkkey, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Malaya, explains that over the last two decades "palm oil has become intrinsically linked to development in Malaysia, both as a vehicle for economic growth and as a way for the state to get smallholder farmers out of poverty."
Varkkey says the growth of the industry in southeast Asia has created a powerful and well-connected political lobby, backed up by nationalistic pride and an ideological commitment to the crop.
Diplomatic pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia intensified at the start of last year, when MEPs voted to phase-out palm oil in biofuels from counting towards the EU's new renewable energy guidelines, which will take effect in 2020.
These rules pose a particular problem to palm oil companies, because a decade or so ago analysts predicted a glowing future for biofuels. In 2010 the EU drafted its first renewable energy directive, setting clean energy rules and targets for member states, and providing an incentive for member states to switch to palm oil-based biodiesel for cars.
In anticipation, palm oil producers stepped up production and created new plantations. These plantations have now reached maturity, but with scientists and legislators increasingly aware of the environmental impact of crops like palm oil, the expected biofuels boom has not materialized, leaving producers with a mounting oversupply problem.
Chris Malins, a consultant on alternative fuels explains: "The biggest potential growth area for palm oil is fuels. This is a growing industry in the medium and long term, and nothing Europe does will change that, but if we stop layering on additional demand for palm oil in biofuels that will limit those more aggressive demand scenarios."
The vote in the European Parliament set off a major lobbying effort by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments and palm oil interests both in Brussels and in European capitals, as the European Commission deliberated over the final shape of the new green energy rules.
In the UK Indonesian and Malaysian officials appeared to dangle a post-Brexit trade deal in an effort to get the UK to oppose the EU move on palm oil in biofuels, according to government emails from early February 2018.
Foreign Office officials said a few days later that "every minister engaging with Malaysia" should expect to be lobbied on palm oil, including Theresa May, who was due to meet then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in April 2018. In the end, Razak was unable to attend the event.
British diplomats also feared that the EU fight could torpedo a multi-billion pound deal for Malaysia to replace its aging fighter jet fleet with Eurofighter Typhoon jets manufactured by BAE Systems. And Foreign Office staff complained about both countries putting pressure on diplomats to hit back on a move by Iceland supermarket to remove palm oil from its own-brand goods.
With a number of European countries considering their own moves to limit palm oil imports on environmental reasons, the push-back on the continent was similarly intense.
This January, Malaysia's new-elected premier, Mahathir Bin Mohamed, sent a personal letter to Emmanuel Macron threatening the suspension of free trade talks and "regrettable economic and trade consequences" for €6 billion of French exports, because of the French "de facto ban" on palm oil. In early summer 2018, French politicians moved to cap and progressively phase-out imports of the commodity.
The move came two-and-a-half-years after French politicians scrapped plans for a tax on unsustainable palm oil in 2016 after being warned that passing the law could lead to the execution of a French citizen convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia, as reported here.
When the Norwegian parliament asked the government to develop measures to exclude biofuels with a high risk of deforestation, both Indonesia and Malaysia tried to hit back.
Mahathir wrote to the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg in January warning that the country's plan to phase out palm oil from biofuels in 2020 could have "regrettable economic and trade consequences" both for Malaysia's smallholder farmers and for Norway. Malaysia's new primary industries minister, Teresa Kok, warned that free trade negotiations with European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states (which includes Norway, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) could be "adversely affected."
Art direction: Georgie Johnson. Illustration: Freya Morgan
Speaking to reporters after the signing of the Indonesia-EFTA trade deal in December last year, Indonesian trade minister Enggartiasto Lukita said palm oil had been a major sticking point in negotiations.
Lukita added that he had threatened to leave Norwegian salmon out of the deal if EFTA states restricted access for palm oil. "I said, we've gone a long way. You will benefit from this and I too. So if you don't open up for our palm, let's just forget about this."
The Norwegian government declined to comment when approached by Unearthed.
'Don't Be Like Richard'
These high-level diplomatic spats have been matched by an online campaign established by Malaysia's smallholder associations and Malaysian government agencies targeting the EU, key member states and private companies.
Last spring, after Iceland supermarket announced its high-profile palm oil move, a group called Human Faces of Palm Oil began spreading messages on social media about the company's Executive Director Richard Walker. One video posted on Twitter and YouTube ran with the line: "Richard only wants to attack poor palm oil small farmers in Africa and Asia. Don't be like Richard."
As the Times reported, while Human Faces of Palm Oil describes itself as a platform to tell the stories of Malaysia palm oil smallholders, it was set up by several Malaysian groups, including two government agencies: Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA).
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), an official trade body, is also listed online as one of the groups behind the Human Faces of Palm Oil. MPOC operates from the same physical address as the economic and industry division of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a government agency.
MPOC made its presence felt during free trade agreement negotiations in Europe last autumn, when CEO Kalyana Sundram dominated discussions that were supposed to be led by plantations minister Teresa Kok, according to one senior European political figure at the table, who asked to remain anonymous.
"It was weird because this lobbyist was interfering a lot in the discussions," the official explained. "He would say stuff like 'the minister wants to tell you …' or [he would] translate what she had tried to say. I found it peculiar because normally the minister is the boss of the lobbyist but it seemed as if the lobbyist was in charge of the minister."
Neither Kok nor Sundram responded to a request for comment from Unearthed.
Farmers Unite, another online campaign publicly backed by MPOC, launched with three full-page ads in the run-up to Christmas in the London free newspaper City AM, calling on Iceland boss Walker to end his "colonial crusade" against palm oil.
The group's founder Thompson Ayodele wrote a series of op-eds in Asia and west Africa, at the same time, decrying moves in Europe to restrict palm oil imports. Ayodele is the founder of the Nigerian thinktank the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) and in 2015 authored research for Malaysia's Sime Darby Plantation.
The National Association of Smallholders (NASH) is another Malaysian group publicly backing both the Human Faces of Palm Oil and Farmers Unite campaigns. Over the last 12 months, NASH has placed several ads in Politico Europe, a magazine that reaches power brokers in Brussels, denouncing the EU's palm oil policy as "crop apartheid."
Unearthed approached NASH, Thompson Ayodele and MPOC for a comment on this story, but received no response.
Farmers Unite did, however, issue the following tweet.
Last Wednesday, after all the diplomatic wrangling, the European Commission recommended that palm oil should be phased-out from transport fuel on environmental grounds. The EU measure places limits on what types of palm oil biofuels can count towards member states' renewable energy targets.
The Malaysian government called the move a "calculated political act" and threatened to bring a World Trade Organization challenge if it goes ahead.
A statement from the country's foreign ministry read: "Such an aggressive trade barrier targeted at Malaysia's national interests, and our 650,000 small farmers, cannot pass without a strong response."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jake Johnson
In a move that environmentalists warned could further imperil hundreds of endangered species and a protected habitat for the sake of profit, President Donald Trump on Friday signed a proclamation rolling back an Obama-era order and opening nearly 5,000 square miles off the coast of New England to commercial fishing.
Why You Should Wash Fresh Produce<p>Global pandemic or not, properly washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a good habit to practice to minimize the ingestion of potentially harmful residues and germs.</p><p>Fresh produce is handled by numerous people before you purchase it from the grocery store or the farmers market. It's best to assume that not every hand that has touched fresh produce has been clean.</p><p>With all of the people constantly bustling through these environments, it's also safe to assume that much of the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fresh-vs-frozen-fruit-and-vegetables" target="_blank">fresh produce</a> you purchase has been coughed on, sneezed on, and breathed on as well.</p><p>Adequately washing fresh fruits and vegetables before you eat them can significantly reduce residues that may be left on them during their journey to your kitchen.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables is a proven way to remove germs and unwanted residues from their surfaces before eating them.</p>
Best Produce Cleaning Methods<p>While rinsing fresh produce with water has long been the traditional method of preparing fruits and veggies before consumption, the current pandemic has many people wondering whether that's enough to really clean them.</p><p>Some people have advocated the use of soap, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/white-vinegar" target="_blank">vinegar</a>, lemon juice, or even commercial cleaners like bleach as an added measure.</p><p>However, health and food safety experts, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), strongly urge consumers not to take this advice and stick with plain water.</p><p>Using such substances may pose further health dangers, and they're unnecessary to remove the most harmful residues from produce. <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/chlorine-poisoning" target="_blank">Ingesting commercial cleaning chemicals</a> like bleach can be lethal and should never be used to clean food.</p><p>Furthermore, substances like lemon juice, vinegar, and produce washes have not been shown to be any more effective at cleaning produce than plain water — and may even leave additional deposits on food.</p><p>While some research has suggested that using neutral electrolyzed water or a baking soda bath can be even more effective at removing certain substances, the consensus continues to be that cool tap water is sufficient in most cases.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The best way to wash fresh produce before eating it is with cool water. Using other substances is largely unnecessary. Plus they're often not as effective as water and gentle friction. Commercial cleaners should never be used on food.</p>
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables With Water<p>Washing fresh fruits and vegetables in cool water before eating them is a good practice when it comes to health hygiene and food safety.</p><p>Note that fresh produce should not be washed until right before you're ready to eat it. Washing fruits and vegetables before storing them may create an environment in which bacterial growth is more likely.</p><p>Before you begin washing fresh produce, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-should-you-wash-your-hands" target="_blank">wash your hands well</a> with soap and water. Be sure that any utensils, sinks, and surfaces you're using to prepare your produce are also thoroughly cleaned first.</p><p>Begin by cutting away any bruised or visibly rotten areas of fresh produce. If you're handling a fruit or vegetable that'll be peeled, such as an orange, wash it before peeling it to prevent any surface bacteria from entering the flesh.</p><p>The general methods to wash produce are as follows:</p><ul><li><strong>Firm produce.</strong> Fruits with firmer skins like apples, lemons, and pears, as well as <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/root-vegetables" target="_blank">root vegetables</a> like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can benefit from being brushed with a clean, soft bristle to better remove residues from their pores.</li><li><strong>Leafy greens.</strong> Spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, leeks, and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and bok choy should have their outermost layer removed, then be submerged in a bowl of cool water, swished, drained, and rinsed with fresh water.</li><li><strong>Delicate produce.</strong> Berries, mushrooms, and other types of produce that are more likely to fall apart can be cleaned with a steady stream of water and gentle friction using your fingers to remove grit.</li></ul><p>Once you have thoroughly rinsed your produce, dry it using a clean paper or cloth towel. More fragile produce can be laid out on the towel and gently patted or rolled around to dry them without damaging them.</p><p>Before consuming your fruits and veggies, follow the simple steps above to minimize the amount of germs and substances that may be on them.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Most fresh fruits and veggies can gently be scrubbed under cold running water (using a clean soft brush for those with firmer skins) and then dried. It can help to soak, drain, and rinse produce that has more dirt-trapping layers.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Practicing good food hygiene is an important health habit. Washing fresh produce helps minimize surface germs and residues that could make you sick.</p><p>Recent fears during the <a href="https://www.healthline.com/coronavirus" target="_blank">COVID-19 pandemic</a> have caused many people to wonder whether more aggressive washing methods, such as using soap or commercial cleaners on fresh produce, are better.</p><p>Health professionals agree that this isn't recommended or necessary — and could even be dangerous. Most fruits and vegetables can be sufficiently cleaned with cool water and light friction right before eating them.</p><p>Produce that has more layers and surface area can be more thoroughly washed by swishing it in a bowl of cool water to remove dirt particles.</p><p>Fresh fruits and vegetables offer a number of healthy nutrients and should continue to be eaten, as long as safe cleaning methods are practiced.</p>
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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