Friday, June 21, 2024

It’s time to rethink palm oil, says watchdog

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In 2010, Greenpeace launched a blistering campaign against Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand in order to highlight mass deforestation in the production of palm oil.

A video replacing a Kit Kat finger with the bloody digit of an orangutan wrapped in foil was possibly one of the most effective consumer-targeted campaigns in recent years, and more than a decade on, palm oil still struggles to shake off its association with dying orangutans and mass deforestation.

But now, according to Inke van der Sluijs, Director of Market Transformation at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), it’s time the world gave the industry a break.

“There’s so much negativity out there, and it doesn’t do justice to what the sector has gone through,” says Sluijs.

“Since 2004, the RSPO has been working as a platform for all stakeholders involved in the sector to make changes and continuously improve.

“Initially, our main concern was forest fires, disappearing forests and its effect on iconic species, but since then, the scheme and the members have evolved to think differently about what sustainability is.

“Yes, it’s very much about preserving nature, but these days we’re also talking about workers’ rights and a lot of social elements which are completely different to monitor and to find compliance for. So, it’s more of a holistic approach, and a reflection of what we feel in society, right now.”

In a recent large-scale consumer survey on public perceptions of vegetable oils in the UK, 41% of people questioned thought palm oil was ‘environmentally unfriendly’ compared to 15% for soybean oil, 9% for rapeseed, 5% for sunflower and 2% for olive oil.

And yet, a recent report into ‘Forests and Deforestation’ by Our World in Data suggests that public thinking might well be out of touch with the reality on the ground.

One of the reasons that palm oil has become the giant of the vegetable oil industry is its incredibly high yields. According to studies, one hectare of land can produce 17.89 tonnes of palm oil.

In contrast, alternatives such as sunflower or rapeseed oil produce about 0.7 tonnes per hectare) while coconut and groundnut oil yield roughly 0.2 tonnes per hectare.

“Currently, the world devotes around 322 million hectares to oilseed crops. That’s an area similar to the size of India. If global oil was supplied solely from palm, we’d need 77 million hectares, around four times less,” the Our World in Data report suggests.

“In this sense, palm oil has been a ‘land sparing’ crop. Switching to alternatives would mean the world would need to use more farmland, and face the environmental costs that come with it. A global boycott on palm oil would not fix the problem: it would simply shift it elsewhere, and at a greater scale because the world would need more land to meet demand.”

Like it or not, palm oil is evident in almost 50% of packaged products found in supermarkets. Over the years, global dependence on it has led to significant environmental damage, particularly in Southeast Asia, where it is primarily grown. Palm oil is also produced in Thailand, Colombia, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Ecuador, though it is Indonesia and Malaysia that make up more than 85% of global supply – and one of the most emotive issues surrounding palm oil is the loss of biodiversity unique to rainforests.

In Sumatra alone, 10.8 million hectares have been lost to palm oil – destroying the habitat of many of the world’s endangered species including orangutans, the Sumatran elephant, tigers and rhinos.

However, due to intense pressure from consumers and campaigners, the industry has undergone huge changes with big corporations that grow, trade and buy palm oil not only signing up to sustainable palm oil initiatives but teaming up with environmental groups and human rights organisations in a commitment to end deforestation and tackle labour abuses on plantations.

In turn, major buyers such as Italian confectioner Ferrero and Cheerios cereal-maker General Mills, have pledged only to procure supplies certified as sustainable.

According to Our World in Data, the effect has been a fairly significant reprieve for the world’s rainforests. From 2001 to 2016, oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia were the largest drivers of deforestation, accounting for 23% with a peak between 2008 and 2009, when it reached almost 40% of Indonesia deforestation. Since then, it has declined to less than 15%.

For Sluijs, these achievements ought to be acknowledged and built upon.

“It’s incredible, the changes we have seen, and I really hope that we see more stories in the public sector applauding the workers that are active in this sphere and the farmers that are active in this field and for everybody that has contributed to these positive changes.”

The RSPO currently has more than 5,200 members globally, operating in more than 100 countries. Together, oil palm producers, processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers and environmental and social NGOs work to define what ‘Sustainable Palm Oil’ is, revising the standard every five years in a multi-stakeholder process.

Sluijs admits “it’s challenging” as stakeholders tend to have opposing interests.

“Saying that, we all agree that something needs to change,” she says. “The world needs sustainable agriculture, so palm is interesting because it is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world so it seems relatively easy to say, ‘let’s move away from it’, but that’s actually the wrong decision.

“What we really need to do is work with the sector because we have such a dependency on vegetable oil and we need to address issues of increasing consumption by an increasing human population, something that palm plays a crucial role in due to the fact that palm is the most efficient of the vegetable oils, giving more oil per hectare.

“But we have to ensure that production is done with respect to nature and people.”

The RSPO’s holistic approach to improving the industry mirrors a more recent move away from deforestation concerns to allegations of human rights abuses in plantations.

One of the industry’s biggest players, Sime Darby Plantation (SDP), has done more than most in its commitment to deforestation – making its supplies publicly traceable and engineering greater yields from existing crops to meet ever-increasing demand – but recent allegations concerning worker abuse has seen the company turn its focus on employee protections.

New initiatives include cutting out the middlemen in worker supply chains in order to ensure that illegal recruiters no longer supply foreign labourers to plantations under debt bondage schemes. 

Last month, SDP also said it would set aside RM82.02 (£14.7 million) to compensate current and former migrant workers who paid recruitment fees to secure jobs. It has also established an ethical recruitment policy that covers the appointment of suitable recruitment agents managed by the appropriate checks and balances to ensure workers are no longer exploited or encumbered with recruitment fees.

SDP’s Head of Sustainability, Rashid Redza Anwarudin, said: “We will not tolerate any abuse of migrant workers. As a major employer, we believe that we have the responsibility to ensure that our workforce is hired ethically and responsibly according to commitments outlined in our Human Rights Charter.

“Responsible recruitment is a key enabler in adopting labour practices that respect workers’ rights and we do not tolerate any forms of forced or bonded labour, slavery, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation.”

For Sluijs the lack of recognition for industry achievements and the continuing work of stakeholders in the RSPO has been frustrating, but it’s a frustration she partly blames on the organisation itself.

“I think we have failed to communicate the positive stories in our sphere,” she says. “We’ve perhaps been too focused on our own criteria and getting things right while forgetting the achievements we should be proud of such as the greenhouse gas emissions that we have saved, together with our members, or the nature that we have conserved, or the forests that we have managed to protect along with community rights.

“Compared to other commodities, I think we’re very advanced in terms of certain techniques and ways to verify compliance, ensuring that everybody sticks to those environmental and social principles that we find so important.

“But we haven’t been very good at telling that story to the outside world.”

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