I wholeheartedly support the recent announcement by the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), unveiling its triple-track approach to address sustainability issues. This represents a substantial opportunity for all vegetable oil producers to collectively adopt sustainable practices. Such a collaborative approach not only fosters unity within the industry but also has the potential to enhance palm oil's standing in the international market as a sustainable and responsible contributor.

Palm oil stands out as the most efficient oilseed crop, surpassing other vegetable oils. However, the palm oil industry consistently faces criticism, particularly from Western countries, regarding sustainability issues. By inclusively incorporating other oils such as soybean, sunflower, and rapeseed into a shared platform, there is an opportunity not only to dispel myths but also to highlight the industry's concerted efforts. Notably, sustainable standards like Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Certification Schemes, along with commitments to combat deforestation, have resulted in low deforestation rates in Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil-producing country.

I am confident that the proposed 2024 Sustainable Vegetable Oils Conference will serve as a central, multi-stakeholder forum, providing an inclusive environment for constructive dialogue and collaboration. This platform not only facilitates the exchange of good practices and lessons learned within the vegetable oil sector but also offers an excellent opportunity for participants to make pledges in their commitment to reducing carbon footprints. By collectively addressing sustainability challenges and sharing innovative solutions, this initiative aligns seamlessly with global endeavours aimed at combating climate change.

A notable aspect of this collaboration is the potential creation of a standardized certification scheme for sustainable vegetable oil, accompanied by a unified logo. This development holds the promise of enabling palm oil to seamlessly penetrate the international market, countering misleading "No Palm Oil" assertions. The standardized logo would represent a joint commitment to sustainability across different vegetable oils, enhancing credibility and transparency within the industry. I advocate for a single, standardized, and internationally accepted logo for all sustainable vegetable oil products.

Facilitating a collaborative platform holds the potential to promote the cross-sharing of technology among vegetable oil producers. For instance, palm oil can glean insights from oils like soybean, which have witnessed substantial yield improvements in the past decade. Additionally, addressing acidic conditions in the palm oil refinery process, a precursor for 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) formation linked to adverse health effects, becomes feasible through a shift from conventional acid degumming to enzymatic degumming—a method already adopted by other soft oils commercially.

Conversely, other oils can capitalize on palm oil's unique qualities, including its high phytonutrient content and the absence of trans-fats resulting from unnecessary hydrogenation in downstream processing. This advantage gains significance, especially considering the health risks associated with trans-fats, making the absence of such components in palm oil products a considerable benefit for consumer well-being. This collaborative exchange of technological advancements not only elevates production standards but also contributes to the overall well-being of both the environment and human health.

Rather than singling out palm oil and casting blame on other vegetable oils, I advocate for embracing inclusivity and fostering collaboration with all types of oils. Concerns may arise about such collaboration diluting palm oil's identity and uniqueness, but I disagree. My perspective is straightforward—similar to the various types of COVID-19 vaccines, whether mRNA, vector, or protein subunit, they all serve the common purpose of protecting human health. Similarly, regardless of the type of vegetable oil, the paramount concern should be their sustainable production and the absence of notable adverse health effects for consumers. Ultimately, the focus should be on producing an abundant supply of sustainable vegetable oil to meet the needs of the growing world population.

The commitment of CPOPC to sustainability and collaboration beyond its primary commodity is not only commendable for enhancing reputation and global influence but also crucial for the broader concept of planetary health. As the industry collectively concentrates on positioning palm oil and other vegetable oils as responsible and sustainable contributors to the international sustainability agenda, this collaborative approach marks a significant stride towards a more environmentally conscious and transparent future for the vegetable oil sector. Through shared knowledge, coordinated efforts, and a steadfast commitment to sustainability, we can create a positive global impact, fostering a greener, more sustainable world that prioritizes both human well-being and the health of our planet.

Eur Ing Hong Wai Onn, a chartered chemical engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is also the author of “A Chemical Engineer in the Palm Oil Milling Industry”.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.