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ASA Adjudication on Malaysia Palm Oil Council

Malaysia Palm Oil Council

2nd Floor, Wisma Sawit
Lot6, SS6
Jalan Perbandaran
47301 Kelena Jaya, Selangor
Darul Ehsan, Malaysia

Date:

9 January 2008

Media:

Television

Sector:

Non-commercial

Number of complaints:

4

Complaint Ref:

31221

Ad

a. A TV ad, for Malaysia Palm Oil, showed a palm oil plantation. The image was interspersed with shots of a rainforest and wildlife. The voice-over stated "Malaysia Palm Oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Malaysia Palm Oil. A gift from nature, a gift for life." Onscreen text at the end of the ad stated "Malaysia Palm Oil Sustainably produced since 1917". b. A second TV ad, also for Malaysia Palm Oil, showed a man running through a forest. The scene was interspersed with shots of a palm oil plantation and wildlife. The voice-over stated "The world has been slowly discovering the secrets of our planet. The beauty of nature and the miracles of life. And while the world may know almost all the wonders of the earth, many may not be aware of the wonders of this gift from nature, this gift for life. Malaysia Palm Oil. Its trees give life and help our planet breathe. Its fruit provides vitamins for our bodies and energy for our daily lives. Malaysia Palm Oil. A gift from nature, a gift for life." On-screen text at the end of the ad stated "Malaysia Palm Oil Sustainably produced since 1917".

Issue

1. A viewer, who was a conservation scientist, and Gasification Australia complained that ad (a) misleadingly implied that palm oil plantations were as biodiverse and sustainable as the native rainforests they replaced.

2. The conservation scientist also challenged whether the claim "its trees ... give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna" in ad (a) was misleading and could be substantiated.

3. Friends of the Earth International and Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE), who commented that the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) had not yet completed its verification system for sustainable palm oil, complained that the claim "sustainably produced" in ad (b) was misleading because much palm oil was produced in a way that was not socially or environmentally sustainable.  

4. Friends of the Earth International and Friends of the Earth Europe complained that ad (b) misleadingly implied that palm oil benefited the environment.  A viewer complained that ad (a) misleadingly implied that palm oil plantations were advantageous for biodiversity and sustainability.

BCAP TV Code

Response

1. & 2.

Malaysia Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and BBC World, who cleared the ad for broadcast, said they rejected the assertion that palm oil plantations typically replaced native rainforests.  They explained that over the past 50 years, oil palm expansion in Malaysia had largely used land zoned for agriculture and converted former rubber, cocoa and coconut cultivation, and that between 1990 and 2006 about 0.98 million hectares of those crops had been converted to oil palm.  They claimed that no new forest areas had been allocated for planting oil palm since 1990.  They said less than 20% of the total land area of Malaysia was allocated to agriculture, compared to typically 70% in the developed countries, and that despite its century-old palm oil industry Malaysia retained about 64% of its land under forest cover.

They argued that the ad did not state or imply that the plantations were as bio-diverse or sustainable as forests, and did not seek to draw comparisons with native rainforest or any other kind of forest.  They pointed out that the ad said palm oil plantations supported a great deal of biodiversity and had a long tradition of sustainability, both of which they considered to be the case.  They maintained that the imagery in the ad, combined with the text and voice over, suggested that plantations could coexist harmoniously with rainforests, which was the policy in Malaysia.  They asserted that the ad made no pretence that oil palm was not planted for economic purposes and did not therefore seek to mislead viewers into believing it was as "natural" as rainforests.

MPOC said the footage of clear running stream water was not intended to suggest that all water was clear and pure, as that would not be true even of all streams and rivers in a rainforest.  They reiterated that the ad mixed pictures from rainforest and

palm plantations and its aim was to show that the two could co exist in harmony.  They maintained, nonetheless, that the Malaysian palm oil industry was one of the most regulated industries in the world.  They listed some of the applicable laws and regulations, such as the Land Acquisition Act 1960, Environmental Quality (Clean Air) Regulation 1978, the Pesticides Act 1974 and the Pesticides (Registration) Rules 1976.  They added that Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), which had minimum impact on the environment, were commonly adopted in palm oil plantations.  As an example, they listed initiatives taken by the Lavang Oil Palm Estate such as the preservation and conservation of riparian reserves to minimise soil run-off and serve as a filtration system to preserve water quality entering rivers.  They said this had led to, for example, improved levels of suspended solid and turbidity, generally satisfactory levels of Biological Oxygen Demand and Chemical Oxygen Demand, and no traces of the two most commonly used herbicides.   They asserted that that showed that the water courses in and around oil palm plantations in Malaysia could be extremely clear.  

MPOC said their findings showed that biodiversity could exist in oil palm plantations, contrary to preconceived notions about mono-crop plantings.  They said it would be excessively burdensome to provide statistics for every plantation in Malaysia, but gave examples from a range of plantation types.  They said a recent study in a coastal oil palm plantation in Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia, showed the environment contained the following numbers of species: 21 dicotyledons, 13 monocotyledons, 10 sedges, ferns and bracken, 53 arthropods, 9 mammals, 83 birds, 6 reptiles and 2 amphibians.  They pointed out that although most of the species were common to the agricultural environment, a relatively rare species, the leopard cat, was also recorded.  They added that 61 of the 83 bird species were breeding residents, which suggested that oil palm plantations were a valuable habitat for such species.  

They provided details of studies on fauna and flora in two established Golden Hope plantations carried out from May 2002 to June 2003, which showed that hundreds of species were present.  In the first inventory researchers recorded 86 species of flowering plants, 22 species of birds, 12 species of bats and 11 species of small mammals.  In the second inventory, taken at a freshwater swampland, 80 species of plants were recorded, of which 48 were indicated to be of scientific and ethno botanical interest, and 20 species of birds.  They said the water was well-stocked with fishes common to such a habitat.

They argued that biodiversity conservatories in plantation ecosystems, even if small, could be significant harbours of wildlife and plants that were rare, endangered or of scientific, heritage or ethno botanical interest.  They acknowledged that levels of biodiversity were lower in palm oil estates than in virgin rainforest, but said the key to maintaining high overall biodiversity levels lay in achieving a sustainable balance between the two.  They listed Golden Hope Plantations' collaborative biodiversity initiatives and said that other large Malaysian plantation companies were also leading the way in palm oil sustainability.      

3. & 4.

MPOC said the fact that RSPO had not completed its certification system did not negate the claim that Malaysian palm oil was sustainably produced.  They asserted that palm oil had been produced sustainably in Malaysia in the past, at present, and would be in the future.  They explained that the RSPO process was designed to ensure that there was a shared universal verifiable standard for sustainable palm oil, and was taking some time to set up, but argued that the absence of a final certification system should not be taken as an indication that the default setting for all palm oil was unsustainable.  They questioned whether it was misleading to state that palm oil had been produced sustainably because some palm oil had, for the sake of argument, not been produced to the high standard that they set and were encouraging others to follow.  They sent a report that documented a joint project carried out by Sime Plantations and the Malaysia-based conservation group Wild Asia, where three of the seven business units were assessed for bio-diversity and social impact under RSPO criteria during the pilot implementation period.  They argued that that, along with Golden Hope Plantations collaborative biodiversity initiatives, was evidence of the Malaysian palm oil industrys cooperation with independent assessors.     

MPOC said it was irrefutable that oil palm plantations did sequester carbon and release substantial amounts of oxygen.  They claimed that, although it might not be as visually appealing as virgin or secondary forest, oil palm was still substantially more efficient at that process than other possible replacements such as market garden agriculture.  

In response to photographs of fires, tree-felling and pollution supplied by FoE, MPOC said they did not condone the practice of burning and the images misleadingly implied that smoking, burnt-out hillsides or terrains were the end result of oil palm plantations.  They argued that that was akin to presenting a demolition or building site as the result of a real estate development.  They asserted that the public had the right to know that oil palm plantations did not merely result in land clearings but could and should mean well-managed estates that harboured substantial biodiversity and employed the latest environmental techniques.  They maintained that it was not a question of a choice between virgin forests and smouldering deserts, and that they reserved the right to hold those plantations up as an example of the gold standard which Malaysian palm oil was always trying to move toward.  They said they were proud to set a benchmark and they wanted the public to demand it of others.  

MPOC argued that sustainability was a holistic concept that could not be limited to environmental protection, but also included sustainable agriculture and, most importantly, sustainable development.  They said agricultural production was a human necessity and an integral part of man's relationship with nature.  They added that economic growth and the reduction of poverty were key objectives of any society and Malaysia took pride in its economic and social achievements over the past decades.  They maintained that part of that success story was the growth of key industries such as the oil palm sector.  MPOC said environmental protection was crucial but was only one amongst other objectives, and the challenge was not to protect the environment but to balance protecting the environment while expanding food production, fuelling economic growth and raising standards of living.  

They said Malaysia continued to practise a consultative approach in dealing with issues relating to sustainability, demonstrated by the increased level of awareness of proven eco-friendly and sustainable practices and active work with environmental and social NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Malaysian-led RSPO initiative.  They claimed that palm oil was the first tropical plantation commodity to reinforce responsible plantation operations on an environmental, economic and social scale in addressing global concerns, in particular CO2 emissions and global warming.  They believed economic and social development would lead to better environmental protection and pointed out that Malaysia's development record was a central reason behind its ability to assume a leadership role on environmentally sustainable palm oil production among producer countries.  They said such achievements should be recognised and their efforts to improve sustainability should be encouraged rather than it being suggested that a growing palm oil industry was per se unsustainable.    

BBC World said they were satisfied that MPOC had provided detailed substantiation in support of their claim in what is a complex scientific area.  

Assessment

1. Upheld

The ASA noted MPOCs argument that the ad did not imply that oil palm plantations were as biodiverse or sustainable as native rainforest, and that they had intended, rather, to show that forest and plantations could co-exist harmoniously.  We also noted, however, the plantations were depicted alongside footage of rainforest and wildlife.  We considered that the voice-over and the numerous shots of wildlife gave the overall impression that oil palm plantations provided an environment as rich in, and as advantageous to, native species as a rainforest habitat would be.  We concluded that the ad was likely to mislead viewers as to the environmental benefits of oil palm plantations compared with native rainforest.

On this point, the ad breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1 (Misleading advertising), 5.2.1 (Evidence) and 5.2.6 (Environmental claims).

2. Upheld

We noted nearly 200 species had been recorded at the coastal plantation, and over 100 each in the two Golden Hope studies.  We also noted, however, that we had not seen evidence to show that those figures were representative of the number of species typically found in plantations.  We concluded that the claim was likely to mislead viewers.

On this point, the ad breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1 (Misleading advertising), 5.2.1 (Evidence) and 5.2.6 (Environmental claims).

3. Upheld

We noted the examples given by MPOC of sustainable practice by several plantations in Malaysia, and their arguments that sustainability should not be limited to environmental protection but should also include agriculture and development, and that they saw those plantations as a gold standard towards which Malaysian palm oil was always striving to move.  We also noted MPOC formed part of the RSPO initiative whose aims included the development, implementation and verification of credible global standards for the sustainable production and use of palm oil.  We also noted, however, FoE's concern that the sustainability of palm oil production in Malaysia was subject to public and scientific debate and that a final certification system had not yet been agreed.  We understood from the best practice practical guidance on environmental claims in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Green Claims Code that although sustainability was "a widely used term it is not defined by a common methodology when applied to products and hence claims containing the word 'sustainability' or 'sustainable' should be avoided".  We also noted the Green Claims Code stated that a claim "should not imply that it commands universal acceptance if there is actually some significant doubt or division of scientific opinion over the issue in question" and should not "imply more than it actually covers, if the claim is only about limited aspects of a product or its production, or does not deal with a significant issues for that type of product".  We considered that viewers would understand from the claim that all palm oil in Malaysia was sustainably produced.  Because MPOC had not provided substantiation to show that all palm oil plantations in Malaysia met criteria for sustainable production (not least because those criteria were not yet in existence), we concluded that the claim "sustainably produced" was likely to mislead.

On this point, the ad breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1 (Misleading advertising), 5.2.1 (Evidence) and 5.2.6 (Environmental claims).

4. Upheld

We noted MPOC's argument that oil palms benefited the environment because they were more efficient in the uptake of CO2 and release of oxygen than other forms of agriculture.  We also noted their point that biodiversity conservatories in plantation ecosystems could be significant harbours of rare or endangered species.   We understood, however, that there were concerns about environmental damage resulting from oil palm plantation in Malaysia, such as loss of natural habitat for wildlife and land rights conflicts with native tribes from the clearing of native rainforest, pollution from illegal burning to clear land and flooding due to the destruction of buffer zones along rivers.  Although we acknowledged that MPOC were taking measures to improve sustainability and that many large Malaysian plantations had biodiversity and environmental initiatives in place, we considered that viewers were likely to infer from the claims "its trees ... help our planet breathe", "a gift from nature, a gift for life", "this gift from nature, this gift for life" and "sustainably produced", along with the footage of native rainforests and wildlife, that it was generally accepted that palm oil plantations in Malaysia benefited the environment.  Because there was not a consensus that there was a net benefit to the environment from Malaysia's palm oil plantations, we concluded the ads were misleading.

 

On this point, the ads breached CAP (Broadcast) TV Advertising Standards Code rules 5.1 (Misleading advertising), 5.2.1 (Evidence) and 5.2.6 (Environmental claims).

Action

The ads should not reappear in their current form.

Adjudication of the ASA Council (Broadcast)

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