Can Palm Oil Be Truly Sustainable?

Can Palm Oil Truly Be Sustainable?

Palm oil has become synonymous with “unsustainable” as palm oil plantations have encroached on the land of local populations from Papua New Guinea to Colombia to Indonesia, and the lack of regulation for building these plantations has resulted in threats to local biodiversity and wildlife, dangerous carbon emissions, and abhorrent infringement of worker rights. It’s no wonder that so many people avoid palm oil entirely.

But some point to the possibility that palm oil can actually be produced sustainably – and that more effort should be made to endeavor to do so.

“If we were to just say, ‘Let’s boycott palm oil,’ that could actually lead to more deforestation,” explains Dan Strechay, U.S. Representative for Outreach and Engagement at Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

The oil palm, he explains, can produce anywhere between four and ten times the yield of other oil-producing vegetable crops; today, about 40 percent of the world’s vegetable oil is produced by oil palms on just 5 percent of the land devoted to producing all vegetable oil crops.

“Because the yields are so high with palm oil, if you went to a different type of oil seed to meet your vegetable oil needs, you could actually lead to more deforestation.”

But corruption and lack of transparency in the regions in which the oil palm is grown has led to unsustainable production.

“It’s grown about 10 to 15 degrees north and south of the equator,” he says, noting that while these regions are rich in biodiversity, they are also home to some of the poorest populations on earth.

“So what we have is this almost inherent cocktail of conflict on how it’s grown and where it’s grown,” he says.

Neil Blomquist, the Managing Director for Palm Done Right, a mission-based educational platform dedicated to proving that palm oil can be grown for good, agrees.

“We know from the work we are doing with organic supply chains in Ecuador and Africa that if done right, oil palm farming can do the opposite of what happens in Asia with the conventional oil palm industry,” he says. “It has the potential to transform communities and reverse climate change.”

Affecting Change in the Palm Oil Industry

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) got its start in 2004, when it began developing its first sustainable palm oil standard. This standard, known as “Principles and Criteria,” was launched in 2007.

But in 2015, a group of RSPO members asked for a standard that went beyond this original certification; it was at this point that RSPO began developing RSPO NEXT, a voluntary add-on module engaging RSPO member companies to go above and beyond the original criteria for certification, addressing a variety of issues surrounding palm oil production including deforestation and human rights violations.

“Because many of the issues that arise in the palm oil industry are already on the books as illegal; sometimes it’s about enforcement,” says Strechay. “So with the revision of our standard, I think you’re going to see even more action on human and labor rights and worker conditions.”

The new standard also addresses some of the concerns that NGOs have raised concerning the RSPO certification, notably a lack of adequate verification of its certified producers.

“The level of corruption in Indonesia and Malaysia makes it very difficult to enforce regional environmental and worker protection laws, as evidenced by illegal land grabbing, continued destruction of virgin and second growth rainforest, worker abuses such as use of child and even slave labor,” explains Blomquist. “Under these conditions, it is very difficult to enforce RSPO certification requirements as well. It is well documented that rules are being broken.”

But NEXT, Blomquist says, shows that RSPO’s “good intentions” are being put into action, demonstrating a clear evolution not only of the organization’s sustainable practice requirements but also its standards for verification.

Colombian-based agribusiness DAABON Group, which has held the RSPO “Identity Preserved” certification since 2010, a higher-level RSPO certification that Blomquist says is trustworthy, is the first to complete a sale of credits with the new RSPO NEXT certification. This required the group to complete a six-day audit, including certification and compliance verification of the 122 smallholder farms who supply the mill.

It was a lot of work, but according to Felipe Guerrero, Director of Sustainability at DAABON, it was worth it.

“I’m not ambitious enough as to say that we have changed [the palm oil industry],” says Guerrero. “But at least we can say that we have proven that you need a little imagination and some sweat to innovate in sustainability in a sector that is not well known for its practices.”

“Transformation cannot happen in isolation,” says Datuk Darrel Webber, RSPO CEO. “But together, through collaboration, we can collectively lead the efforts to transform the market to make sustainable palm oil the norm.”

While this sale represents positive movement in the palm oil industry toward increased sustainability and transparency, none of the players in this industry feel as though their work is done.

“The vast majority of the supply chain continues to produce palm oil without controls by the local governments or RSPO,” says Blomquist.

“I’d say it’s still a work in progress,” says Strechay. “I think we’d be the first to admit that we have a long way to go. The RSPO certifies roughly 20 percent of the market, RSPO NEXT being a small percentage of that, but we think we have more work to do.”

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.