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Why a palm oil ban is not the answer

Greater collaboration necessary to keep palm oil, the world’s most efficient and sustainable vegetable oil crop, in the global supply chain.

 

In a recent FoodIngredientsFirst article, Datuk Darrel Webber, CEO of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) shares his experience attending the sixth annual RSPO European roundtable event. The article reveals both sides of the palm oil production story and this blog post highlights some of Webber’s most interesting points.

 

Think before acting

Webber says that the knee-jerk reaction to stop buying or using palm oil and palm oil-based products, such as emulsifiers, is potentially dangerous for biodiversity and the future of the food supply chain. While consumers bow to the pressure from environmental NGOs to remove palm oil from the world’s food supply, more needs to be done to educate and engage all stakeholders.

The problem, according to the CEO, is that removing palm oil from the supply chain could mean that it will be replaced with a less sustainable crop. A ban on palm oil could be quite detrimental.

 

Good things take time

Palm oil is the most sustainable edible vegetable oil crop known to man, as palm trees require less land and fewer resources than traditional vegetable oils such as soy, rapeseed and corn. And while there is a long way to go in terms of addressing the environmental and workers’ rights issues that come with palm oil production, the work of the RSPO and similar organisations is pushing it in the right direction — albeit at a pace that many consider too slow.

Palm oil is the clear winner when it comes to yield per hectare. 
Source: The European Palm Oil Alliance

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of noise and not much actually happening in the arena of addressing the aforementioned issues often associated with palm oil production. The FoodIngredientsFirst article “Cutting out palm oil: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” claims RSPO chief” explains that although tropical deforestation occurs when land is cleared for palm plantations, palm oil can be produced in a responsible way, making it the best sustainable vegetable oil option.

 

Meaningful change

It’s not just the plantation owners that are important here. The stakeholder matrix encompasses consumers, workers, NGOs and banks as well. Changing the mindset and getting buy-in from everyone involved is a big task but one that the RSPO is willing to undertake.

Webber goes on to say, “What is needed is greater collaboration rather than fragmentation”. The RSPO is seeking to even out the composition of its 4000-strong membership by increasing smallholder engagement. Anecdotally, crop yields increase for smallholders after RSPO certification.

 

Renewed focus

The latest annual roundtable event placed a lot more focus on inclusivity throughout the entire palm oil production process. This focus helps address the challenges that come with changing mindsets and making a meaningful impact. The RSPO has set a 2020 target to reach 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil in Europe. This target is backed by the Amsterdam Declaration, which a number of countries are signatories to, committing themselves to purchasing only palm oil that is sustainable.

Given that RSPO certification of sustainable palm oil increasing steadily in Europe and globally, the 2020 target is reasonable. As word spreads, nations that were once labelled as unlikely members have surprisingly signed up and RSPO hopes to continue to increase its membership through this kind of collaboration.

 

What’s next?

The review of the RSPO certification standards is currently being undertaken and the RSPO is investing in data and a platform called ‘GO RSPO’ – designed to encourage transparency in the industry by listing all growers’ landholdings. A pilot project that gives workers the possible to express any concerns they may have through a phone app is in early stages of development.

The road is long and moving towards worldwide sustainable palm oil production is an ongoing journey. Stakeholders from all sides require patience – and the desire to stay informed and work together.

 Before removing any one product from the supply chain, as would happen with a palm oil ban, we must seriously consider the consequences. The ripple effect of a palm oil ban would be felt across the world – and, specifically, in the homes of those whose livelihoods depend on it.

About the author

Lisa Drejer Mortensen

Lisa Drejer Mortensen has worked at Palsgaard for more than 20 years and has since she first participated in the implementation process on strategic CSR at Palsgaard in 2010 focused strongly on strategic CSR management, reporting and project management. Lisa has participated in a number of CSR related seminars and conferences in Europe, CSR-net-workings, and is a member of the Task Force Group on Sustainable Palm oil of Denmark and has gone through an RSPO endorsed Training Course on RSPO certification. She manages the CSR tasks at Palsgaard as well as trademark registrations. She holds a Bachelor in Business Export and diplomas in specialised business studies from Odense Business School and Odense Technical School.

Her email is: ldm@palsgaard.dk