In 2012, and within the framework of EFTA, Switzerland initiated negotiations with Malaysia on a free trade agreement. Loud criticism against the agreement was voiced at an early stage; a broad coalition opposed the removal of tariffs on palm oil. There are numerous concerns around the production of palm oil: local populations are displaced and valuable primary rainforest is cleared to serve the growing need for land for palm oil plantations. Local and foreign workers toil away on plantations, often under conditions that violate international labour and human rights. As part of the opposition coalition, Public Eye called for palm oil to be excluded from the free trade agreement.

The seventh round of negotiations on the free trade agreement between EFTA and Malaysia, concluded in June 2016 in Geneva, made it clear that there were significant differences in the positions of the negotiation partners, especially when it came to the issue of palm oil (see the FTA with Indonesia).

There was significant opposition in Switzerland to Malaysia’s insistence on a reduction in import tariffs for palm oil: in a petition signed by 20,000 people, a coalition of development, environmental and human rights organisation as well as farmers’ representatives and consumer protection advocates called for palm oil to be exempted from the free trade agreement.

Moreover in 2012, the Swiss Parliament demanded that Malaysia ratify the UN Human Rights Conventions and the ILO’s core labour standards before the negotiations be concluded.

Great success of the palm oil coalition

Numerous concerned members of the National Council and various political parties submitted parliamentary initiatives on the issue of palm oil. The first breakthrough finally came at the beginning of 2018 when, clearly accepting a motion put forward by Jean-Pierre Grin (SVP Party), the National Council decided to exclude palm oil from the planned free trade agreement with Malaysia. This great success was achieved thanks to the tireless efforts of the palm oil coalition, in which Public Eye played a role. The Council of States is due to rule on the motion in its autumn session.

Malaysia is the most important supplier of palm oil imported to Switzerland. It is primarily used in processed food, cleaning products and for cosmetics. A reduction or removal of tariffs would likely lead to a further increase in imports, which would further exacerbate the human rights and environmental problems caused by industrial palm oil production.

Further problems linked to palm oil production

There are further arguments against removing tariffs on palm oil alongside the labour and human rights issues which are of primary importance to Public Eye (see factsheet on palm oil):

  • Clearing rainforests releases huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, leading to the loss of significant parts of the ‘earth’s lungs’ which absorb CO2.
  • Higher levels of logging further erode the rich biodiversity of rainforests.
  • Cheap palm oil makes the production of rapeseed in Switzerland barely profitable; Swiss farmers fear huge losses and are concerned about danger to crop rotation.
  • Consumer protection organisations point to health concerns associated with higher palm oil content in food because, in contrast to rapeseed and other cooking oils, it has a high saturated fat content.