KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said linking the production of palm oil to deforestation was "baseless, unfair and unjustified", and that the industry has grown responsibly.
Malaysia is the world's second-biggest producer of palm oil, a widely consumed commodity used in everything from chocolate spread to lipstick.
Several studies have shown palm oil is a major contributor to deforestation, along with cattle ranching and soya bean production.
The European Union passed a law earlier this year to phase out palm oil from renewable fuels by 2030 due to deforestation concerns.
"The claims linking palm oil to deforestation are baseless, unfair and unjustified," Tun Dr Mahathir said at an event on Malaysian forests yesterday.
"These claims bring negative impact to Malaysia which depends highly on the palm oil industry to raise the socioeconomic well-being of our people," he said.
Dr Mahathir also said the palm oil industry in Malaysia has been developed sustainably and responsibly.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a Switzerland-based group of governments, conservation organisations and scientists, has said oil palm expansion is a major driver of deforestation and degradation of natural habitats in parts of tropical Asia and Central and South America.
At least 50 per cent of all deforestation between 2005 and 2015 in Borneo - an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei - was related to oil palm development, the IUCN has said.
Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil producer, supply around 85 per cent of global palm oil, much of which is used in foods.
Environmentalists and locals have alleged that deforestation continues to this day in Borneo and other parts of Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir also said Malaysia is focused on improving productivity and yields of oil palm, rather than expanding land.
He said the government would limit oil palm cultivation at 6.55 million ha by 2023, reaffirming an earlier target set by the minister in charge of palm oil.
Earlier this week, Reuters reported that Malaysia has launched a global public relations and lobbying effort, especially in Europe, to protect the reputation of palm oil.
The campaign is centred around small-holder farmers, carried out by platforms that say they represent farmers but are created or run by public relations firms hired by a government agency responsible for promoting palm oil.