Longtime target of green groups, Cargill, to supply sustainably-certified palm oil to Unilever

Jeremy Hance
July 30, 2010

Agriculture giant Cargill has announced an agreement to supply Unilever with 10,000 metric tons of palm oil sustainably-certified from the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Cargill has often come under fire from green groups for being linked to the rainforest destruction. The Dutch-English company Unilever—the world's biggest buyer of palm oil—has been trying to move its palm oil sources away from deforestation with a goal of sourcing only 'sustainable' palm oil by 2015.

"Our agreement with Unilever is the result of both companies' strong commitment to supporting responsible supply chains. As the demand for certified sustainable palm oil continues to grow, we are combining our supply chain expertise and industry knowledge to provide customers with choices to meet their particular requirements," said Paul Naar, head of Cargill's food business in Europe in a press release on the agreement.

In May the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) released a damning report alleging that Cargill was linked to two palm oil plantations that were participating in illegal deforestation and the destruction of peat forests. Cargill denied the allegations, releasing a point-by-point rebuttal, however this most recent move may be seen as attempting to undercut further criticism.

"Cargill and Unilever are proving that it is possible to differentiate between palm oil that destroys rainforests and palm oil that is produced in a more environmentally responsible manner. What they have not yet proven is that it's possible to produce palm oil and stop destroying forests altogether," Leila Salazar-Lopez, RAN Agribusiness Campaign Director, said in a statement.

While, RAN clearly sees this as a step forward it warns that RSPO-certification may not go far enough to ensure sustainability. Some green groups have quietly criticized RSPO standards and practices, while others work closely with the group to improve the industry.

"We remain concerned, however, that the RSPO's standards are not yet strong enough to assure customers that this palm oil is entirely free from forest destruction or other environmental damage," Salazar-Lopez says.

Yet even with this new development, Salazar-Lopez argues that Cargill has a long way to go before conservation groups stop targeting it.

"As long as Cargill continues to buy from disreputable companies like the Sinar Mas Group, their customers cannot be sure that their purchases are untainted by forest destruction."

Oil palm trees cut in order to establish a new plantation for palm oil production on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A recent investigation by Greenpeace has found that Sinar Mas, despite promises to the contrary, is clearing orangutan habitat and destroying peatland forests, which releases vast stores of carbon. Nestle recently dropped Sinar Mas after a campaign by Greenpeace that spiraled into a large-scale social media protest. Cargill, however, retains its ties to Sinar Mas, which is the world's second largest producer of palm oil.

Used in everything from food products to soap to cosmetics, palm oil is the world's most productive oil seed (far outstripping soy, which is linked to deforestation in the Amazon), yet it is responsible for a significant percentage of deforestation in Southeast Asia. For example, a study in Conservation Letters found that 55-59 percent of palm oil plantations in Malaysia built between 1990 and 2009 occurred on forested land.

While the palm oil industry is worth tens of billions of US dollars in Indonesia and Malaysia, it has created an environmental crisis: biodiversity loss in some of the world's richest habitats, conflict with indigenous groups who depend on the forests for their livelihood, and sizeable greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas, largely due to the destruction of carbon-rich forests.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (July 30, 2010).

Longtime target of green groups, Cargill, to supply sustainably-certified palm oil to Unilever.