RSPO failing to meet sustainability objectives for palm oil production, says WWF


An initiative that aims to improve the social and environmental performance of palm oil production is faltering in its mission by failing to establish strong performance standards on greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use, argues a new statement issued by WWF, the initiative's biggest green supporter.

An initiative that aims to improve the social and environmental performance of palm oil production is faltering in its mission by failing to establish strong performance standards on greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use, argues a new statement issued by WWF, the initiative’s biggest green supporter.

The statement [PDF], published on the eve of a major meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), says that RSPO certification alone can no longer be considered an adequate measure of environmental sustainability for “progressive” companies. It says companies that aim to minimize the impact of their palm oil production, trade, and/or consumption should now target performance standards that include public reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating the use of Class 1A and 1B pesticides, and establishing policies that exclude the purchase of oil palm fruit from illegally cleared or occupied lands. Those standards were excluded from the recently updated RSPO principles and criteria, which will go to a vote at the RSPO meeting on April 25 in Kuala Lumpur.

The statement from WWF is especially significant given the group’s role in the formation and progress of the RSPO. For years WWF has pushed for producers, traders, and consumers to adopt RSPO certification as the standard for responsible production and use of palm oil. The effort has resulted in a steady increase in RSPO-certified palm oil’s market share, but also complaints from some environmentalists who say the initiative does not go far enough to limit deforestation, conversion of peatlands, or social conflict.

Forest clearing in Malaysian Borneo for an oil palm plantation.

RSPO’s principles and criteria were drafted after months of input from the body’s stakeholders, which include NGOs, buyers, traders, producers, and government entities. Despite its concerns about the strength of the principles and criteria that underpin the standard, WWF is nonetheless urging for a “yes” vote from RSPO members on Thursday.

“While the revised P&Cs are not perfect, on balance WWF believes that they are a step in the right direction and give progressive parts of the industry the right tools to demonstrate that they are acting more sustainably,” said the statement. “That is why WWF will be voting yes to the new P&Cs and why we would like all RSPO members to do so as well.”

The RSPO responded to WWF’s statement by noting the multi-stakeholder nature of its democratic standards-setting process.

“As a multi-stakeholder initiative – compromise is pursued by the various interests groups within the RSPO represented along the palm oil chain of custody,” the RSPO said in a statement. “Every sector has had the opportunity to express their priorities during the review sessions over the year long process; and may respond to the final outcome as they deem appropriate in further advocating the cause of sustainable palm oil.”

The RSPO added that it is up to companies whether they want to go beyond basic RSPO-certification standards.

“The WWF initiative is purposed at getting progressive companies, who have already significantly committed to the RSPO vision to drive their leadership in sustainability to the next level,” the body said. “The initiative is referenced against the RSPO and requires member companies within the organization to further demonstrate their disclosure through its existing systems, processes and reporting requirements.”

The oil palm is the highest-yielding commercial oilseed, generating more oil per unit of area than any other crop.

The RSPO was established in 2004 and the first shipments of “certified sustainable palm oil” reached market in 2008. Today about 15 percent of palm oil produced globally is RSPO-certified.

Palm oil is used as a cooking oil and in a wide range of processed foods. Its high productivity makes it a cheap source of vegetable oil while at the same time making it a highly profitable crop. But recent expansion has taken a heavy toll on forests and wildlife, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where growth has occurred the fastest. Accordingly, in the mid-2000’s, environmentalist activists fighting deforestation began campaigning against palm oil produced at the expense of rainforests and peatlands. Palm oil thus joined the ranks of other tropical commodities — cattle, soy, timber, and wood-pulp for paper production — targeted by green groups.

Note: an earlier version of this story said “The RSPO did not immediately respond to request for comment on WWF’s statement”. The post has since been updated with comment from the RSPO.

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