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.
(04/19/2013) Indonesian palm oil companies would support land swaps as a means to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation while simultaneously expanding production, representatives from the country’s largest association of palm oil producers told mongabay.com in an interview last month.
(04/07/2013) Neste Oil, a Finnish energy giant, has announced a new ‘no deforestation’ policy for sourcing palm oil. The company, which is one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil, had faced criticism from environmentalists for purchasing palm oil potentially linked to rainforest and peatland destruction in southeast Asia.
(02/28/2013) Over the past 25 years palm oil production has emerged as one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and peatlands degradation in Southeast Asia. And there are fears that expansion in West and Central Africa could soon make palm oil a major cause of forest conversion on that continent.
(01/18/2013) The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) must implement standards that protect forests and account for greenhouse gas emissions to remain credible, said an environmental group ahead of a that will determine the body’s ‘Principles and Criteria’ for the next five years.
(12/20/2012) The body that sets social and environmental criteria for greener palm oil production has taken action against a palm oil accused of clearing community forest in Indonesian Borneo, reports the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
(12/14/2012) Palm oil is widely acknowledged as one of the most important drivers of deforestation and forest diminishment in Southeast Asia. Conversion of forests and peatlands for oil palm plantations is both a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions and a major threat to biodiversity — one study called palm oil the ‘single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species’.
(11/28/2012) The European Commission has approved palm oil-based biodiesel for the renewable fuels standard provided it is certified under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that sets social and environmental criteria for palm oil production. The move, which could dramatically boost sales of palm oil in Europe, was sharply criticized by environmental activists, who said that without stronger safeguards, increased palm oil production could increase deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
(10/04/2012) The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is holding its tenth annual meeting later this month. The initiative, which aims to improve the social and environmental performance of palm oil production through a certification standard, has advanced considerably during that time, moving from an idea to a reality: RSPO-certified palm oil now accounts for 12 percent of global palm oil production. Yet the RSPO is not without controversy. Some palm oil companies say its criteria are too costly to adopt and are therefore discriminatory, while environmental critics argue its bar for “sustainable” palm oil is too low and the loopholes allow producers to claim membership even if they aren’t actually producing certified palm oil across all their holdings. Nonetheless the RSPO has support from many of the world’s largest palm oil producers, traders, and consumers as well as the biggest NGOs.
(04/25/2012) Unilever is in talks to build a $130 million palm oil processing mill in Indonesia as part of its commitment to use more environmentally-friendly palm oil in its products, reports The Wall Street Journal. The mill, which would be located in Sumatra, would produce about 10 percent of Unilever’s annual consumption of palm oil, which is produced from fruit from the oil palm tree. Unilever is the world’s largest single consumer of palm oil, using 1.36 million tons a year for beauty and food products, including Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Vasoline.