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RSPO: Labeling palm oil as an ingredient is fine, provided other oils are labeled too

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that sets criteria for social and environmental certification of palm oil, weighed in on the debate over Australia’s proposal to require listing of palm oil as an ingredient on package labels. At the same time, the RSPO announced its own labeling initiative to distinguish products that use RSPO-certified palm oil from those that do not.

Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the RSPO, said that if the purpose of the bill is to encourage the adoption of “greener” palm oil, rather than discourage use of all palm oil, the RSPO supports the bill. But he added truth-in-labeling should apply to all vegetable oils.

“Distinguishing palm oil as the only edible oil that requires labeling implies that other edible oils do not face similar challenges,” Webber said in a statement. “RSPO takes a strong view against this supposition as issues surrounding environmental destruction, social concerns and wildlife conservation are prevalent across the board with cultivation of any type of monoculture crops.”

palm oil fruit
Oil palm seed. Palm oil is used widely in processed foods. By virtue of its high yield, palm oil is a cheaper substitute than other vegetable oils. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Further to this, such a labeling exercise that singles out palm oil may only serve to ostracize agricultural farmers in developing countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, South America, West Africa, etc. whose key source of income comes from palm oil. These smallholders need to be educated, guided, encouraged and inspired to adopt sustainable standards and solutions, rather than have their livelihoods affected. RSPO certification program aims to support smallholders in this light.”

Webber added that if the bill causes a shift away from palm oil, the vegetable oils that replace it would also need to be evaluated on their social and environmental performance. As the world’s highest yielding oilseed, palm oil produces more oil per unit of area than any other crop. As such the palm oil industry argues its crop requires less land to produce the same amount of oil as canola/rapeseed, soy, coconut, and corn.

“The long term repercussion of this proposed Bill may decrease the demand for palm oil but will not eliminate the key reasons this proposal is aimed at addressing in the first place,” he said. “This is because edible oil is a key ingredient in most consumer products. Demand would merely shift to other vegetable oils, increasing the sustainability problems connected to these other particular crops.”

Webber took the opportunity to announce the RSPO trademark, which will be used on product packaging and labels which contain RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The label will be available later this year.

Oil palm estates and forest in Pahang, Malaysia
Oil palm estates and forest in Pahang, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Google Earth

“The trademark will enable consumers to confirm very quickly that the products they buy contribute to sustainable production of palm oil,” said the RSPO statement. “The trademark logo could end up on the packaging of thousands of consumer products worldwide.”

Up to half of packaged products in some markets contain palm oil.

RSPO also announced record production of certified palm oil, which reached 4.7 million metric tons in the year to date, up from 2.8 million tons for all of 2010.


RSPO was formed in 2004 as a response to concern from environmentalists who maintain that oil palm production has driven large-scale destruction of rainforests across southeast Asia over the past two decades, triggering the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions and imperiling rare species, including the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan. RSPO has created a set of criteria to make palm oil production less damaging to the environment and local communities. These include using natural pests and composting in place of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers whenever possible, implementing no burn policies, sparing high conservation value forests from development, taking measures to reduce air pollution, and creating catchment ponds to prevent palm oil mill effluent from entering waterways where it would damage aquatic habitats. The hope is that CSPO can be sold at a premium to recoup the increased costs that certification entails.

RSPO has at times been criticized for being slow to act when members are found to be operating in violation of productions standards, but the body has recently rebuked IOI Group, a Malaysian producer, and Golden Agri Resources (GAR), a Singapore-based firm, for social and environmental transgressions. GAR has since taken steps to come back into compliance, including establishing a new forest policy.

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