“The IEA does not accept state money, and all of our research is independent of corporate funding.”

UK think tank denies Malaysian palm oil conflict of interest accusations

Last updated on 28-Jul-2014 at 17:44 GMT2014-07-28T17:44:10Z - By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+
Malaysian media accuses UK economic policy think tank of a conflict of interest given contact with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and the country’s government.
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The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has said categorically it does not accept state money, following accusations by a Malaysian media outlet that the UK think tank is in bed with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and the country’s government.

Media organisation Sarawak Report claimed the IEA had been put in an “embarrassing position over an apparent conflict of interest”, after deputy chief minister for the Borneo state Sarawak Alfred Jabu reportedly said in a speech that he had received “world-wide acknowledgement” by the Institute thanks to his participation in a panel discussion at the launch of an IEA report on palm oil.

Sarawak Report questioned the independence of the research, written by IEA fellow Keith Boyfield, given its author’s contact with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) through his work with another institute.

The discussion paper, entitled Commercial Agriculture: Cure or Curse? Malaysian and African Experience Contrasted, sought to demonstrate “the importance of palm oil as a potential solution to escalating global demand for foodstuffs and ever-escalating food prices”.

Responding to the accusations that Boyfield and a IEA colleague Glynn Brailsford had accepted hospitality from the MPOC and been hosted by deputy chief minister Jabu, also chairman of the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA), IEA told FoodNavigator: “The IEA does not accept state money, and all of our research is independent of corporate funding.”

Free coffee and markets

The organisation MPOC said its mission was: “To promote the market expansion of Malaysian palm oil and its products by enhancing the image of palm oil and creating better acceptance of palm oil through awareness of various technological and economic advantages and environmental sustainability.”

IEA head of communications Stephanie Lis acknowledged that Boyfield and Brailsford had travelled to Malaysia with the “support” of the MPOC, but said Boyfield did so “under the capacity of his role as a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute” and added Brailsford was the only IEA staff member on the trip. The Adam Smith Institute is another UK economic policy think tank, which pushes for liberalised, free-market reform such as privatisation, deregulation and tax reform.  

Lis added: “Whilst we don’t accept state money, this doesn’t mean that we don’t accept hospitality. For example, we may visit a government minister and drink a taxpayer-funded cup of coffee, but that doesn’t mean it influences or affects the work which the Institute undertakes.”

“The IEA accepts donations from individuals, foundations and companies both domestic and foreign in order to pursue our charitable objectives. We do not under any circumstance accept funding from the UK (or any other) government. All our research is peer reviewed and independent of any corporate funding.”

She said it was important to reiterate that the IEA has “received no payment from the Malaysian government to do any research”.

Palm oil points

In the report published last October, Boyfield wrote: “Certainly, some loss of forest and wildlife habitat has occurred as a result of the expansion of agriculture, including oil palm, in Malaysia, but the extent of this loss appears to have been exaggerated.

“The majority of palm oil plantations are located on the Malaysian mainland peninsula – nowhere near the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo where the Borneo orang-utans are to be found. Over 50% of Malaysia’s land area remains under forest cover and many areas are given full protection against logging.”

Lis said Boyfield was one of over 30 IEA fellows, with the majority of the institute’s output going via a twenty-strong team. She said the report in question represented his views only and not those of the IEA, which she said had “no corporate view”, nor those of its managing trustees, senior staff or Academic Advisory Council. 

Related topics: Food prices, Sustainable sourcing, Policy, Fats & oils