Can palm oil really be sustainable?

image: orangutans are being decimated as their homes are wiped out from deforestation for palm oil plantations

PALM oil is heading for certification – the first tangible sign of a commitment towards sustainable production of the versatile yet controversial commodity. The first certificate is expected to be issued by the first quarter of 2008, after the call for environmentally and socially responsible production of the crop came five years ago.

At the recently-concluded fifth meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur, the verification and implementation mechanisms of the certification system were presented to some 500 participants from 30 countries representing major players in the palm oil supply chain, from growers to retailers, banks, investors, and pressure groups from environmental and developmental organisations.

Several issues remain unresolved after five years of deliberations. Expansion of oil palm estates on fragile ecosystems and displacement of indigenous communities are two contentious issues
that divide supporters and critics of RSPO. Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world commodity market, with 37 million tonnes produced last year.

How EU policy is destroying Indonesian forests and wetlands.

Indonesia overtook Malaysia as the largest oil palm producing country with an output of 16 million tonnes last year. The area of land under oil palm plantation in Indonesia tripled between 1995 and 2005. Close to six million ha of plantation has been developed and millions more
are planned.

A report by the Indonesian Forest Ministry and European Union states that to meet the rising world demand for palm oil from 20 million tonnes to 40 million tonnes by 2020, some 300,000ha of new estates will be needed each year. It added that inevitably, most new estates
would come up in wetlands, as the more desirable dry lands are already occupied.

Such expansion plans are largely driven by the demand for biofuel in rich nations. In early 2007, the European Union endorsed a minimum target for biofuel to constitute 10% of its transport fuels by 2020.

Greenpeace has called for a moratorium on deforestation of peat swamp forests for oil palm expansion. Its political advisor for energy Wolfgang Richert says just like the campaign on soybean in the Amazon which got three major traders agreeing to stop expansion in the
Brazilian rainforest, Greenpeace will continue to pressure RSPO members to commit on this important move.

“It’s crucial for RSPO to get rid of partial certification. Otherwise, it’ll just be another green-washing exercise, undermining its credibility.”

Friends of the Earth (FOE) highlights that as RSPO only gives
sustainability certifications for each plantation, other plantations in a company could remain unsustainable.

“Inevitably, palm oil companies will use a sustainability certification to green-wash, even though it will by no means guarantee that the company is guilt-free of environmental and social violations. The RSPO must refuse to certify palm oil coming from any company still involved in destructive palm oil production,” said Paul de Clerck, FOE corporate campaigns co-ordinator.

FOE Europe chapter is campaigning against the EU biofuel policy, cautioning that the demand for palm oil will drive conversion of forests to plantations on a scale far beyond what the RSPO could guarantee is sustainable. It has called for a moratorium on European financial subsidies and targets that encourage the development and production of large-scale biofuels.

What are the Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production?

The certification process will authenticate growers’ claims that their products are derived from plantations that follow the Principle and Criteria (P&C) set by the initiative. Theoritically this process will enable manufacturers to assure consumers of product “traceability” through eco-labelling. See the RSPO Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production

Who was behind the initial establishment of the RSPO?

The initiative on production and usage of sustainable palm oil started as an informal cooperation among Aarhus United UK Ltd, Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, Migros, Malaysian Palm Oil Association, Sainsbury’s and Unilever together with WWF. These organizations constituted themselves as an Organizing Committee to organize the 1st Roundtable Meeting (RT1) in August 2003 in Kuala Lumpur.

RSPO members

The membership list is buried deep within the RSPO website. There are almost 300 members, a list of which you can find here; Membership list for RSPO. They include growers, processors, traders, banks, food retailers such as supermarkets, biodiesel & oil companies and NGOs.

Members include BP, HSBC, Bayer CropScience AG, Cadbury Schweppes plc, Colgate-Palmolive Company, EDF Energy, IKEA, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer, RWE npower, Tescos, Sainsbury’s, The Body Shop, Boots, Rainforest Alliance Inc., Wetlands International and WWF.

image: the march of the palm oil plantation

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6 Responses to Can palm oil really be sustainable?

  1. Palm Oil Consumer says:

    I think it is unfair for you to accuse palm oil on destroying the environment. Palm oil is more efficient in carbon absorbtion and 02 emission, as compared to other crops. Even as compared to rubber tree that is approved by the FAO as a secondary/planted forest. What else can Malaysia and Indonesia rely on other than land to enhance their economy and eredicate poverty?

  2. matt says:

    Oh there are plenty of other industries a country can tap into. It’s the rate of palm oil expansion that’s the problem and it’s use as a biofuel, which is plain daft.

  3. Ali says:

    I wish the world does not ask for fuel that convertion of palm oil need to energy would not be necessary
    I wish the world population does not grow this fast so that the orang utan and other animals are not chased off their habitats
    I wish the world population does not grow this fast so that oil palm and soybean plantation should be expanded

  4. matt says:

    Ali, I wish for this too.

  5. origin says:

    I dont know if this would work because of how dependent we have become on other’s energy rather than our own but…. do we really need palm oil to live in this world? I’m sure we don’t need to kill someone else for our survival.

  6. matt says:

    There’s a scramble for resources happening all over the world. The latest is for a number of countries (quite a few from the far east) to buy (or try to) huge tracts of land from poorer nations. East Africa is one such target.

    They are looking to do this because they realise their own farmers are running out of land to grow staples to feed their population. Trouble is, the targeted countries are not feeding their own populations very well and the purchasing country may not have local employment on it’s agenda to any significant degree.

    Can you see these outside countries putting environmental considerations such as controlled pesticide use up there on its agenda as well? No, I can’t.

    The same scenario is happening with palm oil. Ill judged policy driven by business greed and political naivety.

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