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What is Sustainable Palm Oil?

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 article 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.

Organizations like Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Greenpeace and the World Resource Movement (WRM) represent one side of the palm oil debate. In March 2010, WRM released a damning report on the palm oil industry with a particular focus on the RSPO and its ability to let companies greenwash their practices. Greenpeace has echoed WRM’s position, and has released a handful of reports focused on companies that, despite RSPO membership, have been found to destroy rainforests and compromise social standards in producing palm oil.

What is sustainable palm oil

RAN believes that palm oil certified by the RSPO can provide a certain level of assurance that non-certified/conventional palm oil can’t, but remains cautious about relying solely on the RSPO certification stamp of approval given several critical omissions, such as permissible standards around greenhouse gas emissions. The bottom line is that palm oil needs social, environmental and transparency safeguards, the RSPO can’t guarantee that these safeguards are consistently met, and therefore we believe corporations need to require these basic assurances on their own.

In the middle of the spectrum of this debate are groups like WWF, which advocates on behalf of the RSPO and certified palm oil while still sharing some of the same concerns as organizations with a stronger stance. WWF has worked within the RSPO since 2003 to ensure that compliance is monitored, and that standards contain robust social and environmental criteria, including a prohibition on the conversion of valuable forests. However, in reference to the RSPO WWF warned in May 2009: “One of the major solutions to halting deforestation of tropical forests is not catching on fast enough.” Some people remain so critical of the RSPO’s effectiveness that they have re-branded it as “Really Slow Progress Overall.”

I can’t help but wonder: will the efforts of the RSPO to make palm oil rainforest-friendly ever move fast enough to protect rainforests in Indonesia before it’s too late? Just last week, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee decided to place the remaining rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia on  the “List of World Heritage in Danger” to help overcome threats posed by illegal logging and agricultural encroachment.

Scientists such as William F. Laurence of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute think palm oil can only be “sustainable” if the RSPO makes badly needed changes to its certification system, such as fixing its pro-industry bias, developing a system to monitor members that has accountability mechanisms, and taking a stronger stand against peatland destruction. According to the Conservation Biology Journal, expansion of palm oil has greater impacts than acknowledged by the RSPO.

Then all the way at the farthest reaches of the spectrum from groups like RAN and Greenpeace there is the palm oil industry itself, which is represented by groups like Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s Palm Oil Associations (MPOC and GAPKI, respectively), whose interests are driven almost solely by the pursuit of profit. Somewhere on this end of the spectrum are global palm oil traders like Cargill. It appears that many of these groups hide behind the green veneer of their RSPO membership while continuing business-as-usual practices of expanding palm oil plantations and markets at any cost.

The RSPO attracted widespread criticism in November 2009 when it opted not to include greenhouse gas emissions standards as part of its criteria for ‘sustainable’ palm oil. There was a process to deal with this serious omission, but palm oil industry groups GAPKI and MPOC have continued to sideline that process, continuing to kill the Green House Gas Emissions Working Group every year at the RSPO. It’s becoming increasingly clear that their bottom line is expansion at any cost.

It is very clear that there are vast differences in opinion on the effectiveness of the RSPO as well as the question of sustainable palm oil. RAN seriously questions whether an oil that displaces rainforests and peatlands, with heavy ties to human rights abuses and slave labor, can ever be sustainable, but remains committed to working within this unsustainable global food system to protect our planet’s remaining imperiled forests, as well as the people and species who depend on them.

We’re working to reduce the impacts of climate change by taking action for one of the last great stands of tropical forests in the world — Indonesia’s forests — and we need your help.

What's At Stake: The Rainforest in Borneo. Photo by Frans Lanting.

What's At Stake: The Rainforest in Borneo. Photo (above) by Frans Lanting.

So,what is sustainable palm oil?

The answer, of course, is anything but simple.

We have already explored the weaknesses of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the dominant certification standard for palm oil companies and examined the colorful spectrum of positions on “sustainable” palm oil from environmental advocacy groups to scientists and industry.

The real question still remains to be answered: Can an agricultural commodity like palm oil, which displaces rainforests and peatlands and has heavy ties to slave labor and human rights abuses, ever be considered sustainable?

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s website, the word “sustain” implies long-term support or permanence. As it pertains to agriculture, sustainable describes farming systems that are “capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems… must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound.”

Currently, trying to find palm oil that meet’s the USDA’s own definition of sustainability is about as hard as finding a list of Alan Oxley and World Growth Institute’s donors.

Palm oil is the most traded edible oil in the world due to its high yields and cheap prices. But the many environmental and social costs of “cheap” palm oil — rainforest destruction, alienation of local communities from their customary lands and livelihoods — are externalized, meaning that while the market price of palm oil may be low, we’re still paying far too high a price for it. The rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, which is where 85 percent of palm oil is grown, contain some of the oldest (older even than the Amazon) and culturally and biologically rich forested ecosystems in the world.

The cost of destroying these natural treasures is not included in the price of palm oil-laden products like Girl Scout cookies or Keebler Grasshoppers — but aren’t these products costing us far too dearly all the same?

Monoculture palm oil plantation.Photo: Treehugger

Monoculture palm oil plantation. Photo above: Treehugger

As corporations and governments struggle to meet sky-rocketing demand for cheap vegetable oil, where do we look? Are industrial palm oil plantations the answer?

Plain and simple, the industrial palm oil now flooding global markets will likely never be a model of sustainability. In fact, it is the exact opposite — a model of irresponsible and short-sighted agriculture.

However, that does not mean the current system shouldn’t be transformed to create meaningful changes for people and ecosystems already planted with oil palm. By continuing to run effective corporate campaigns we can slowly chip away at this destructive system and the status quo of business as usual. We’re working to tip the scales by creating enough public pressure that our corporate targets embrace solutions in which environmental justice outweighs profit.

For example, imagine an agricultural system that prioritized transparency, accountability, and a diversification of food crops to support a robust local economy rather than an export-based industrial monocrop that strips the local communities of their native lands and food security. Imagine if biodiverse tropical rainforest land was not dished out by corrupt governments for mere pennies, just so they can be turned into desert wasteland. Imagine if, our world’s last remaining rainforests were protected as havens of biodiversity.

There could be strictly enforced and widely respected criteria around agribusiness expansion to ensure that endangered species and Indigenous peoples don’t get displaced. But there aren’t.

Working within this dysfunctional system on near term solutions, even if they may not make the system perfectly sustainable, is essential if we want to protect what’s left. Here are some immediate steps to help mitigate the negative impacts of this destructive industry:

  1. Stop deforestation. Moving forward we need to figure out how to improve production standards on existing plantations, particularly by resourcing smallholders, and only expand on degraded lands with the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the local forest communities that rely on them. There is no need to expand palm oil plantations on primary forest. Should the Indonesian government prioritize its forest protection and halt all expansion, RAN would clearly be supportive of that. We strongly support a moratorium on expansion of palm oil on primary forest and designating “no go” areas for the industry.
  2. Companies must demand that the palm oil they buy goes beyond existing RSPO certification. Read the second recommendation in this blog post to learn more about this.
  3. The RSPO should deny certification certificates to companies that fail to put in place dispute resolution mechanisms. In addition to the many unresolved land disputes from the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia, agribusiness giants like Malaysian Sime Darby are swiftly moving into Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia creating yet additional widespread land conflicts and natural forest conversion. Sime Darby is a Cargill supplier.
  4. The RSPO standard must be strengthened. RSPO membership and even RSPO certification is not enough to protect rainforests. According to the advocacy coordinator for the SPKS, an independent union of oil palm farmers, “What I see in discussions is very different than what happens in reality on the ground in RSPO certified plantations and an even bigger gap in non RSPO certified plantations. The number of land disputes is growing by the day. The RSPO is a way for companies to legalize their crime through smallholder schemes.”

While the limits of large-scale industrial agriculture likely can never yield “sustainable” palm oil, we must continue to push the limits of our current system, because doing so means the protection of real acres, the defense of diverse forest communities, and the only hope of creating a future for critically endangered species like Sumatran orangutans and tigers.

This article was originally published as a three-part series (starting here) on Rainforest Action Network's The Understory.

Ashley Schaeffer

Ashley Schaeffer’s Mendocino County Northern California roots introduced her to environmental and animal rights activism at a very young age. She has spent many years living and working in South America for the World Learning Institute and researching Indigenous resistance to the oil industry in the Amazon. She has worked on social and environmental justice campaigns for seven years at Amazon Watch, Green Corps, Greenpeace and now as the Rainforest Agribusiness campaigner at Rainforest Action Network.

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