Cutting out palm oil: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” claims RSPO chief

25 Jun 2018 — Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) CEO Datuk Darrel Webber has warned against the unforeseen sustainability and biodiversity impacts that may come from switching to, what he calls, less sustainable edible oils to palm. “The knee-jerk reaction is, ‘if this stuff is bad why not stop buying it,’ but of course, there are perverse incentives. You do this and that will incentivize something that is worse. More messages are coming out from academia and civil society saying that banning palm oil could lead to worse impacts than what we have now,” notes Webber.

Webber points to a 2016 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study on the use of palm oil in Germany, where 33 percent is used by the food industry, noting how it warns that if you were to ban palm oil, you would cause more destruction in terms of biodiversity and the planet, because you would have to replace it with a different oil. “Banning palm oil displaces biodiversity loss somewhere else and at a greater scale,” he says.

In the NGO firing line
Few food industry sectors attract NGO criticism more often than palm oil, which regularly comes under fire for its role in deforestation. How palm oil is sourced, where it comes from and the farmers and small communities of grower countries have been heavily scrutinized in recent years as part of industry efforts to clean up the supply chain. There is also significant pressure from non-governmental organizations and environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, who continually investigate the palm oil supply chain.

Just today, a new Greenpeace International investigation claims that Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader, is still linked to forest destruction for palm oil almost five years after committing to end deforestation. An area twice the size of Paris has been destroyed by Gama, a palm oil business run by senior Wilmar executives and members of their family. Photos and videos taken by Greenpeace International on a recent flyover show active deforestation in two Gama concessions in Papua, Indonesia, the group says. In December 2013, Wilmar became the first palm oil trader to publish a “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” (NDPE) policy that applied in its own plantations and those of its suppliers. Mapping and satellite analysis shows that Gama destroyed 21,500ha of rainforest or peatland since Wilmar made its commitment.

Increasing consumer awareness about the major issues of palm oil has led to many companies committing to only using “deforestation-free” palm oil products – those made exclusively using palm oil from plantations that have not cleared forests. However, environmentalists have criticized the action so far as taking too long and not following sufficiently strict guidelines.

At the end of May, a new study by the Imperial College London noted that genuinely “deforestation-free” palm oil products are problematic to guarantee. And despite a considerable amount of work within the industry, a more collaborative and supportive approach to understanding palm oil supply chains is needed so it can lead to more effective strategies being developed.

Although growing palm trees requires less land and resources than traditional vegetable oils, the cultivation of palm oil is a primary cause of tropical deforestation, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil plantations replaced 2.7 million hectares of tropical forest in the two countries between 1990 and 2005, leading to a loss of biodiversity and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

In April 2018, UK supermarket Iceland claimed to have become the first major supermarket in Britain to completely remove palm oil from its own label food. Back in February, Unilever became the first consumer goods company to publish in full a dossier, all the suppliers and mills that it sources from.

At the 2018 Sweets & Snacks Expo, which was held in Chicago at the end of May, Enjoy Life, a subsidiary of Mondelez International Inc., expanded its allergen-free Protein Bites line with dark raspberry and chocolate banana varieties. The brand claims to have become the first food company in the US to receive Palm Oil Free Certification for its newest product launches from the International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Program (POFCAP). As well being used in the brand’s plant-based Protein Bites, their new Grain & Seed Bars (with the ancient grain sorghum) are promoted as the first to receive the certification. “Palm oil is one of the most commonly used ingredients in US food products, and as awareness of the devastating impact its conventional production has on our planet continues to grow, we feel it’s important to lead by example. Our goal is to demonstrate that there are opportunities to create delicious foods without having to utilize an ingredient that increasingly more consumers are looking to avoid,” said Joel Warady at the company.

Certifying palm oil
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global, multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil. Members of RSPO and participants in its activities come from many different backgrounds, across a range of countries that produce or use palm oil, including plantation companies, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, financial institutions, environmental NGOs and social NGOs.

Webber notes the large diversity of stakeholders involved. “A lot of people think we only deal with palm oil producers and change their mindset – which we do – but we also change the mindsets of other stakeholders such as banks and civil society. Of course, the producers have to change as they receive feedback from the other stakeholders. And the producers also ask the financiers to change, meaning they need to look more carefully at how they finance companies to produce palm oil. Civil society has to do more than just campaign but try to facilitate solutions. A lot of the stakeholders in our supply chain points have changed the way they behave,” he adds.

Moving for inclusivity
The sixth annual RSPO European Roundtable takes place today and tomorrow (25 & 26 June) at Le Palais des Congrès de Paris, France. The theme of this year’s conference is “Inclusivity: from Production to Consumption” and the event will discuss ways of speeding up market transformation, including how to prevent deforestation caused by increasing demand for palm oil from major markets, including the EU.

The European Roundtable brings into focus the need to adopt an inclusive approach at each stage of market transformation. This is fundamental to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the advancement of a more inclusive, sustainable future.

One of the main topics for discussion will be RSPO progress and impacts, and the ongoing review of the RSPO Principle & Criteria, by RSPO CEO Datuk Darrel Webber. In a detailed interview with FoodIngredientsFirst, Webber stressed that palm oil, just like virtually every commodity can be sustainable if handled correctly and that there is no paradox between palm oil and sustainability.

“It’s an ongoing process – the question of sustainability will never end,” he says. “Sustainable is a nice confluence of three pillars: people, planet and profit. As time goes by you know more about people, the planet and how to make or lose money. So, that conversation needs to be had and every time there might be a new conference point. What we can say is palm oil, and other commodities, are on the road to sustainability.”

Certification standards
In terms of the key topics on the agenda at this year’s Roundtable, Webber notes that coming up with a new certification standard will be crucial. “We are reviewing our old standard and we now have the second draft out for public consultation. We want people to understand what changed, what remains and why we changed it. We also want to help send the message through – despite all the many initiatives out there on palm oil none have shown great traction. None have seemed to be a serious fix to deforestation, for example. We are looking for greater collaboration rather than greater fragmentation. Collaboration is key – going along retailer by retailer or government by government is not going to have much traction. Our third message is, we cannot be high and mighty and say ‘let’s forget about these countries that are poorer and see palm oil as a crop that will help alleviate poverty.’ This is undoubtedly the way that large chunks of Africa see it,” he says.

Growth in RSPO members has been strong amid rising demand for responsibly sourced palm oil. “We are growing at a rate of 20 percent a year – it goes up every day. We are at about 4,000 members from over eighty countries now. We continue to grow and we are getting membership from unlikely nations, which we are pleased about. We are also seeing smaller companies coming in. For example, companies make sandwiches for supermarkets. We would like to see more smallholders cooperating, we have a few, but we need to ramp up efforts to get in more organized smallholders,” he adds.

Europe still dominates
Europe remains the leading market for sustainable palm oil, yet this continues to be a topic of debate among consumers and policymakers. People are looking for greater levels of transparency, commitment and sustainability.

RSPO is working towards making sustainable palm oil the norm through a process of market transformation and has a goal to reach 100 percent certified Sustainable Palm Oil in Europe by 2020. This target is echoed in national industry initiatives and signatories to the Amsterdam Declarations governments: the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands.

These targets are reachable. “In many parts of Europe, we are very close to being wholly certified by 2020. In the UK a report showed 70 to 80 percent, the Netherlands the same and Switzerland was 100 percent. In many parts of Europe they are already close to the goal, so we still stand a good chance. We have the Amsterdam Declaration Countries where several countries have committed to buying only sustainable certified palm oil: If all of these countries get together – and we continue recruiting – we stand a good chance in Europe,” he says.

But while Europe has been the leading global region when it comes to RSPO-certified palm oil, Webber does note growth elsewhere too, with 19-21 percent of palm oil RSPO-certified globally, depending on the base data.

He notes particularly tremendous progress in the US and Latin America recently. “The US has doubled up regarding uptake this year. And number members have increased tremendously. They started slow, but they are now growing aggressively. Buying countries in Latin America are stepping up their game too and we have buyers in the supply chain coming from countries we never thought would be part of RSPO, such as Japan, Middle East and Russia. They are far behind Europe, but I think they are catching up. China and India remain to be a challenge. In China, we do see a faster uptake as a number of facilities are becoming certified, but in India, it is slow going,” he says.

Changing the dialog
Webber admits that it is also a challenge to change the high consumer distrust that exists around palm oil and for how certification schemes can change this dialogue. Having previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) himself, as an activist, he understands the background. But he warns: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

For Webber, industry needs to be wary of a few key considerations. “Firstly, if we think that the growth of the industry has to come at the expense of massive deforestation loss, then it is not going through because many countries know better. But there is also pressure to expand, especially in less developed countries. They see palm oil as a crop that will help alleviate poverty. On the flip side, if you don’t have palm oil then what will shape the demand for edible oils from the global population? It will be something else,” he says.

This dynamic has led to unforeseen effects. “We see the unexpected growth in some edible oil crops that are scary – such as in Brazil; it is going into the Maprando region. We must understand that there is opportunity for us to guide these countries to expand in responsible ways, e.g., Ecuador. We need more on this conversation and need to tell the world that while the spotlight remains on palm oil, we must stay aware of other commodities. For example, soy which also grows in the tropics. In terms of less efficient use of land, there is rapeseed or maize. The world already does not have enough land. If you remove palm oil from the edible oil equation something else will fill that vacuum and none of the alternatives is as efficient as palm oil,” he adds.

The same goes for another often-criticized crop for deforestation: soy. “I was at a conference talking about the soy moratorium in the Amazon region. Soy expansion is decreased tremendously but the total expansion of soy is more than before because it’s now leaked into the adjacent biomes of the Amazon – which is also endangered. So, beware of good intentions,” he adds.

Securing the future
Increasing productivity in existing palm growing land will be key to combating deforestation, as smallholder yields are increased. “We know that smallholder yields increase after they get certified, as non-commissioned research has found this. Yields are low right now, but 40 percent comes from smallholders. So if you can increase the productivity of smallholders, there is a lot to be gained. A small intervention can increase yield by 20 percent,” says Webber.

Big data will allow for innovation in highlighting transparency. “We are investing in data science and analysis to help us make sense. It will hopefully make us more proactive in areas – instead of waiting for a complaint we can intervene very early on, by looking at trends, and intercept the trajectory of things happening.”

He notes the example of GO RSPO, which is a platform that transparently tells you where all the member’s landholdings are, in regards to whether they are certified or not. “Here you can investigate yourself if it has a legal status if there have been fires and if it was part of a deforestation activity. This is novel and no one else is doing this in any commodity sector, it’s a global first. We are also concerned about workers’ rights and this goes across all commodities. We are now deploying an interesting tool which allows the many thousands of workers in all our memberships to communicate directly with us. This is through a smartphone or conventional phone. You can get a link to RSPO to express concerns, wrongdoings, text, submit a comment, voice message. We will hopefully roll this out in the near future if the pilot works out,” he concludes.

Cutting out palm oil altogether may neither be plausible nor ultimately beneficial to long-term sustainability efforts, as other oils will still be required amid reformulation efforts. Developments in collaboration through big data technologies and increasing efficiency at existing plantations will need to be part of the solution.

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