What is Sustainable Palm Oil? Part One

Written by Ashley Schaeffer

Topics: Agribusiness

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RSPO Certified: "Sustainable" Palm Oil?

RSPO Certified: "Sustainable" Palm Oil?

What is Sustainable Palm Oil? Part one of a three-part series.

Palm oil has become an increasingly hot topic over the last year. This thick, long-lasting oil is found in almost half of all consumer goods sold in grocery stores and it is also a main driver of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

As controversy over the oil and its role in deforestation increases, so do calls for the oil to be made more sustainably. The real question, however, is: Can palm oil ever be made sustainably? This series is dedicated to exploring just that question.

Both businesses and consumers who are concerned about palm oil often look to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as the answer to the problem with palm oil. The RSPO is a voluntary initiative that aims to create a certification standard for “sustainable” oil palm. Nine percent of the world’s palm oil production is now certified according to the RSPO’s latest figures. Those who have some or all of their plantations certified under the RSPO include IOI, Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) and Cargill.

But is RSPO-certified palm oil truly sustainable? The trick with most certification standards is that it they can either help businesses to improve their practices in a systematic way or they can systematically greenwash business-as-usual practices. The RSPO is a little of both.

As our allies at Greenpeace put it: “The aim of the [RSPO] is to create clear standards for producing sustainable palm oil but at present these standards are far too weak to ensure that forests and peatlands are not destroyed to meet growing demand for palm oil.”

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, sourcing RSPO-certified palm oil is a major step forward from sourcing from suppliers who are just RSPO members. But even with certification, there are major concerns. A few of the weaknesses of RSPO-certified palm oil include:

  1. Lack of Environmental Safeguards: Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions standards are not included in RSPO’s certification process. This means that draining and clearing peatlands — the largest single source of our planet’s stored carbon and one of the most powerful defense mechanisms against climate change — is permissible.
  2. Lack of Social Safeguards: Although the social safeguards in RSPO’s certification criteria look good on paper, they are seldom followed. This was evidenced recently by one of the RSPO’s founding members, IOI Group, which is currently under major global scrutiny for breaching RSPO Code of Conduct with serious human rights abuses.
  3. Lack of Transparency and Enforcement: In the case of IOI, the RSPO announced in April 2011 that IOI would face sanctions if the company didn’t resolve its social conflict by May 2, 2011. It is now more than a month past that deadline and the RSPO has not done anything to reprimand IOI. Meanwhile the social conflict has escalated.

If companies like Cargill are going to rely on the RSPO then they need to actively work to improve it — and that means more than simply continuing “to work with the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) and the Indonesian government to advocate for sustainable palm oil development,” as stated in its 2010 and 2011 Palm Oil Commitments. If you want to know more about these industry groups whose mandate is to expand palm oil at any cost, stay tuned for the next part of our three-part series.

7 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Eleanor says:

    I thought it wasn’t actually possible for palm oil to be sustainable. If you use the dictionary definition of sustainable as ‘capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage’. From what I have read palm oil plantations destroy the soil on which they grow and hence can never, by definition, be sustainable. I would love to know what other people think.

  2. Eleanor, wise words!! I’m actually going to explore this very question in the third and last series of this topic, “What is Sustainable Palm Oil: Part III.” Part II will come out next week and Part III shortly thereafter. Stay tuned!

  3. AlanBruceDavies says:

    This is a great site – very informative. It does make some pretty strong assumptions though. Let’s not forget that there is presently no scientific consensus that global warming is man made. The rising CO2 levels could actually be caused by global warming (not the other way around). Also, the plantations that replace the forests in places like Indonesia actually soak up more CO2 than the ancient forest they replace (provided they’re not on peatlands). When there are sufficient plantations to feed the palm-oil industry (and the forest can be left alone), the industry becomes ‘sustainable’. It’s slow, but they’re getting there. Let’s also not forget that the rainforest is a natural resource which must play its part in lifting these countries out of poverty. Over half of Indonesia’s 250 million live on less than $2 goods and services a day. How much do you use? Did you drive to work? You’re on your PC now. How was your dinner? Turn the aircon down. (You get my drift.) The strategies to lift these people from poverty are multi-faceted, and the rainforest is better protected by those countries’ governments than some single-issue groups allude. Of course, such movements can’t highlight the progress towards more sustainable practices because their followers (and donors) would quickly lose interest. But, the whole rainforest issue is far more nuanced than some groups suggest. Keep up the good work. But, please maintain a good balance.

  4. Hailey says:

    Alan, I agree with you that we must also consider native rights to the use of natural resources in developing countries such as Indonesia and address poverty in the tropical Third World. However, I have to disagree with your thoughts on both anthropogenic climate change and biosequestration of carbon. Although there may not be consensus among the general public that global climate change is man-made, there is certainly widespread consensus regarding this issue among the scientific community. A 2010 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 1,372 climate change researchers and found that 97-98% support the theory of anthropogenic climate change, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). See article: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.full Therefore, I do not believe RAN is making assumptions, but it is in fact supporting the current most well-respected theories on climate change. Furthermore, although palm oil trees do soak up carbon, they are first of all temporary sinks since they are subsequently cut down for their oil, and they are also not as valuable as old growth forests, which accumulate carbon over a much longer period of time. Check out this article from Nature which outlines the importance of old-growth forest as a carbon sink. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7210/abs/nature07276.html. Palm oil and pulp & paper are the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. We don’t know anybody who denies the carbon footprint of palm oil who doesn’t represent a very isolated part of the industry in Indonesia or a fringe group. The scientific evidence supporting the connection between palm oil plantations and climate change is overwhelming, so any groups or individuals who claim that the overall footprint of palm oil is climate negative are using non-science-based views.

  5. AlanBruceDavies says:

    Hailey, one of the first things you notice about the AGW debate is that everyone cites there own statistics as indisputable facts. But, I appreciate it’s difficult not to without present a full thesis. I should make my position clear. I am certainly not a naysayer for CO2 being behind the recent warming trends. I certainly do not refute that CO2 levels are rising or where it’s coming from. Some data are quite irrefutable. I am purely an advocate for ensuring that we know the reasoning global warming. You see, getting this wrong has huge consequences. Our whole life-support architecture and the plans of developing countries depend on us getting this right. I’m sure many in the West are ready for a period of carbon “dieting”, having gorged so heavily in recent decades, but others do not have that luxury. The new democracy in Indonesia which is charged to look after over 125 million of its people (50% of its population) who live on less than 2 dollars’ worth of services a day is the best example (http://www.cpr-indonesia.com/). We need to be careful not to “clip their wings” with international laws based on science that remains inconclusive (from what I read). You will be aware that patterns reviewed over the last 2 millennia suggest that sun-spot activity is playing a role in the warming, and how this affects our environment (e.g. the oceans’ ability to absorb our emissions) is extremely difficult to measure.

    I don’t follow your logic on the trees versus the plantations. Ancient forests that have “peaked” absorb little carbon relatively speaking. They store tonnes! So, as long it’s turned into furniture or the like this storage is not damaged. I wasn’t aware that palm trees are cut down. I though the oil came from the fruit. I could be wrong. But, even if the former, what happens then? I suspect they plant more. This is the thinking behind sustainability isn’t it? Enough plantations to sustain the industries means sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to put right still, but I think countries like Indonesia are striking a pretty good balance between development and the environment. RAN, Greenpeace and the other main-stream respectable environmentalists ought to adopt a more advisory role in my view. I think they might be swimming against the tide if they don’t yield a little. In my experience, debates are usually resolved through some compromise. You also can’t say that anyone who disagrees with you (and I don’t by the way) is unscientific. That sounds a little biased.

  6. Amanda says:

    What is being done to make palm oil production more sustainable? How can conflict be managed?

  7. Steve says:

    I live in south east asia and so I see first hand the effect of the proliferation of oil palm plantations. As a matter of fact I just returned from the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) and one can easily see the miles upon miles of forest that is being cut down for new plantations.

    Apart from Esat Malaysia, I have recently travelled into the interior of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and the story there is very much the same.

    While the palm oil plantations do offer economic benefits to the people the main beneficiaries are the big businesses and corrupt officials who could not care less as to the social cost.

    Up to 2 weeks ago, West Malaysia and Singapore were enveloped in a dense haze that was caused by burning due to the annual clearing of jungle for replanting in Sumatra. In Singapore the pollution index rose to 400psi (normally its below 50psi) and in parts of Sumatra its gone to 700psi and this has led to a political issue between the three countries. In southern Peninsula Malaysia authorities closed over 200 schools as the pollution got too bad. The single biggest culprit to all this is the oil palm industry. You can read up on this on the web.

    I think the palm oil industry is the single biggest ecological disaster facing us today.

Trackbacks For This Post

  1. What is Sustainable Palm Oil? Part Two » Rainforest Action Network Blog
  2. Cargill: Too Little Too Late? » Rainforest Action Network Blog
  3. Get A Free Ride With Malaysia’s New Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme » Rainforest Action Network Blog
  4. Did You Know? These 8 Vegan Foods Contain Palm Oil | One Green Planet
  5. Palm Oil: with Catherine Laurence, Eric Lambin, Orangutan rescuer Daniek Hendarto, RSPO SG Darrel Webber | THE VEGAN OPTION internet radio show and blog

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