Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Oil Palm,The RSPO and Sustainability: The Way Forward




By Wong Ee Lynn


In the April and May 2018 Green Living columns, we had a brief overview of the environmental issues surrounding monoculture crops, the problems with oil palm cultivation and the reason why the European Parliament proposed a ban on palm oil biodiesel. Palm oil, along with other agricultural commodities such as soy, coffee, cocoa, rapeseed oil and other vegetable oils, has been blamed for causing environmental destruction, deforestation and human rights violations to its workers and rural and indigenous communities. This has led consumers and NGOs to pressure palm oil companies to clean up their act. Some environmental organisations, activists and consumer groups have called for bans on palm oil products, while some countries have laws that require manufacturers to clearly label palm oil as an ingredient in food and consumer products.


Today we explore a few questions related to whether oil palm cultivation can be made sustainable, and what we can do as consumers and activists.





Boycotting palm oil presents challenges. Considering that palm oil is cheaper and more resource-efficient than other vegetable oils (i.e. alternative vegetable oil crops may use up to 10 times more land. Source: spott.org) and the fact that the palm oil industry employs about 6 million people worldwide, boycotting palm oil may result in loss of jobs and income, palm oil producers selling to markets which don’t value the environment, and a lack of incentive for palm oil producers to find more sustainable ways to produce palm oil.


Sustainable palm oil is produced by companies that promise No Deforestation, No Peat Development and No Exploitation (‘NDPE’). These policies are usually applicable across the company’s supply chains, including third party suppliers and smallholders. They require farmers to stop burning land to clear it, assess land for high carbon stock and high conservation value before developing new plantations, and obtain land use permission from communities using a process known as ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’. Companies with NDPE policies in effect include Musim Mas, Golden-Agri Resources, Wilmar International, Cargill and Asian Agri. (Source: eco-business.com).


These requirements are reflected in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s certification system.




The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO. Sustainable palm oil is defined by the 8 principles and criteria against which oil palm plantations are certified. RSPO’s 8 principles are:

(i)                 Commitment to transparency;

(ii)               Compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

(iii)             Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability;

(iv)             Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers;

(v)               Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity;

(vi)             Responsible consideration of employees as well as individuals and communities affected by growers and mills;

(vii)           Responsible development of new plantations; and

(viii)         Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity.


RSPO’s criteria are reviewed every 5 years via public consultation, followed by member agreement on a consensus basis for any changes or additions. (Source: greenpalm.org)


There are 4 types of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), namely:

(i)                 Identity Preserved (IP): The end user can trace the unit of palm oil to a single RSPO-certified supply base (i.e. single plantation).

(ii)               Segregated (SG): Palm fruit from multiple certified plantations are combined at the mill. The resulting CSPO is kept physically separate through the supply chain, but cannot be traced back to a single plantation.

(iii)             Mass Balanced (MB): The mill takes in palm fruit from certified and non-certified plantations and processes it together. The resulting oil is not physically linked to sustainable plantations, but the miller keeps track of how much sustainable palm oil it is producing and selling.

(iv)             Book & Claim (B&C): Manufacturers do not have to buy CSPO, but can pay for ‘RSPO Credits’ in an online marketplace to claim sustainability credentials. The funds from these sales support farmers to implement sustainable farming practices.


CSPO currently makes up approximately 21% of the world’s total palm oil supply.




Environmental organisations and investors have routinely criticised RSPO for failing to provide a credible assurance that CSPO is truly sustainable. Its current principles and criteria do not require companies to stop expanding onto peatlands or to stop clearing forest as per the High Carbon Stock approach. The auditors that verify company compliance to RSPO standards have also been accused of malpractice and corruption.


Activists have also criticised the speed and effectiveness with which RSPO investigates and resolves complaints made against its members. Some complaints have taken years to resolve, while other companies have allegedly been let off the hook too easily. The UK and Washington DC-based non-profit organisation, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), released a 2015 report on malpractices by RSPO auditors, which included failure to spot violations and even abetting companies with cover-ups. The report suggested that RSPO-certified consumer products could be “tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”


The RSPO is also making very little progress when it comes to ethics traceability in the world’s palm oil supply chain. In its 2016 report, RSPO admitted that the problem of child labour in palm oil plantations makes it “clearer that much work needs to be done.” (Source: triplepundit.com)


EIA and another non-profit organisation, Grassroots, found that monitoring of the RSPO system is not carried out by RSPO or its auditors, but by NGOs and communities. Many complaints of violations of RSPO’s principles and criteria, including some that were confirmed by the RSPO’s Complaints Panel, exposed an unfortunate truth: The world’s only global palm oil certification system – meant to ensure sustainability, human rights, labour standards, respect for the law and environmental protection in the sector – fails to achieve what it was set up to do. (Source: theecologist.org)





(i)                 Lack of awareness is a major issue. Make a conscious effort to learn about the exact ingredients of the products you purchase. Europe is leading the way with the introduction of mandatory labelling of products containing vegetable oils.

(ii)               WWF International stated in 2014 that Asian markets, being the biggest consumers of palm oil products, could drive and shape the industry. What you buy, and what you demand from manufacturers and producers, will force brands to act. Businesses will have to buckle to consumer pressure to be more transparent and responsible.

(iii)             Greenpeace International advises that the RSPO standards are not strong enough to prevent deforestation, and advises companies to seek certification with the Charter of the Palm Oil Innovation Group. Look out for these other certification bodies and groups and read about the companies and manufacturers whose products you most frequently purchase. Responsible sourcing will boost a brand.

(iv)             Use your voice. Write to big companies, especially the biggest snack food and processed food companies, to voice your concern about deforestation and human rights violations. Sign petitions to big corporations and the government, and use these petitions to help educate others and raise awareness about why you make the choices you do.  

(v)               Reducing your consumption of processed foods not only means reducing your dependence on palm oil and other vegetable oils, but also plastic packaging and the fuel miles your food had to travel to get to you. Think about whether it is important for you to have that packet of crisps or bar of chocolate right now, if there is the option of having a banana or corn on the cob instead.

(vi)             Learn about new technologies that are cleaning up the palm oil industry and which companies are investing in these technologies. It is not all bad news. In 2017, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics developed a cheap plastic device with which subsistence farmers could punch samples from the leaves of their young palm plants. The samples are mailed to a laboratory which carries out molecular testing and informs the farmers which plants are viable, and which plants are a bad investment. This would help farmers reliably boost yields and reduce the motivation to spread oil palm plantations into forested areas, as less land would be needed to generate the same yield. (Source: bigthink.com) Products and technologies such as these which improve quality over quantity can ultimately reduce the need to keep opening up new lands for new plantings.






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