Azhar runs the plantation and agri-business arm of Sime Darby Berhad, Malaysia's leading conglomerate and one of the world's largest palm oil producers. He was visiting Brussels earlier this month.
Azhar said it was a "big concern" for palm oil producers that current EU discussions on the impact of indirect land-use change on greenhouse gas emissions could produce biofuel policies that put palm at a disadvantage.
The European Commission is set to present a report by the end of the year assessing these impacts, and if necessary, outlining measures to address the problem.
The plantations chief argued that industrialised countries should not deny poor countries the key to development that palm oil production can offer. Most of the world's palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the industry in Malaysia alone contributes around €14 billion to the country's economy, he said.
"Likewise, for a poor country in Africa that's now only thinking of developing plantations to support its economy, it's worth money that can be diverted to health care, schools [and] education for the people," Azhar said. "If you do not allow developing countries to regulate land-use change in order to live equally in their respective economic environments and enhance help to eradicate poverty, what are the other alternatives?"
Azhar voiced concerns that EU policymaking might be too driven by NGOs funded by the European Commission, and which "are really banging hard for deforestation and orang-utans". Efforts should be made to ensure that all points of view are heard and to involve developing countries more closely in the discussions, he argued.
"Before any policy is made, instead of having lobby groups, I think there should be direct discussion, direct interaction so that the real picture can be obtained and everybody is on the same page," he said.
Azhar pointed out that palm oil ranks among the most efficiently produced energy oils, needing only one tenth of the land area that would be required to produce the same amount of soya or other edible oils. Moreover, the industry is increasingly taking precautions to protect the environment by following the guidelines of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), he said.
The vegetable oils used for biofuels in Europe are mainly soy and rape, despite the fact that current debate is centred on palm, Azhar pointed out.
EU discussions about indirect land-use change have concentrated on biofuels, but Azhar believes it is only a matter of time before sustainability criteria are extended to cover vegetable oils used for food, for example.
He insists, however, that the industry will be "ahead of the game here," putting in place measures to guarantee sustainability before any legislation is put in place.
"As far as Malaysia is concerned, land-use is very highly regulated. Today, 60% of the land in Malaysia is by law supposed to remain as virgin forest," Azhar said. "Malaysia hasn't got much more land to develop into palm because of that law that we have," he said, adding that Malaysian investors are now participating in agricultural development in other countries.