The Oil Palm, a Malaysian Palm Oil Council mouthpiece, criticised the British broadcaster’s coverage of an academic paper, the “Rates and drivers of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia, 2000–2012”, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Under the headline “Rice and palm oil risk to mangroves”, the BBC article claimed the “threat posed by the development of rice and palm oil plantations to mangroves in South-East Asia [had] been underestimated”.
Stating that the BBC was one of “a number of media outlets to make palm oil the story”, the Oil Palm observed: “A close look at the data presented by the researchers presents a picture that is completely different to the headlines. And there are a number of points raised by the researchers that completely contradict the headlines.”
It pointed out that, according to the study by academics Daniel Richards and Daniel Friess, not only has the total amount of mangrove deforestation across Southeast Asia been relatively small, at approximately 2% over a 12-year period, but that oil palm was responsible for just 17% of this, compared to aquaculture, the major threat, which accounted for almost one-third.
In its rebuke, the MPOC added that oil palm deforestation as a whole had decreased in Malaysia to levels lower than it had been in 2007.
So which is right: the palm oil lobby or the global news organisation that “chose to include palm oil in its coverage simply because it is the bête noire of Western environmentalists”, according to the Malaysian governmental body?
Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Dr Richards’s tone was less sensationalistic than that of the BBC’s headline or the palm oil body's response. He said: “The MPOC are correct in stating that across the whole of Southeast Asia, oil palm agriculture has not been the biggest driver of mangrove loss.”
However, he conceded that this form of agriculture still contributed to a substantial portion of overall mangrove change, and was the biggest driver of this in Malaysia, accounting for 38% of deforestation.
By reviewing satellite imagery, the researchers assessed how mangroves had been felled. In some cases, the landward edge of the mangrove forests became dyked to disconnect it from the sea, and then drained. In others, mangroves were converted to aquaculture ponds, which were subsequently converted to oil palm.
“The issues of rice agriculture and aquaculture have previously been discussed in relation to mangrove deforestation, but our study highlights the role that oil palm also plays,” Dr Richards said, adding that he was keen to work with oil palm companies to understand the challenges of establishing plantations in mangrove areas and the reasons for doing so.
“We are glad that our study has stimulated debate about how best to sustainably balance the need to produce oil with the need to protect mangroves in the future.”