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Palm oil certification? No silver bullet, but essential for sustainability (commentary)

  • We need a global standard on what constitutes sustainable palm oil and a common system to implement it. Arriving at this consensus requires a convening body to connect every link in the palm oil supply chain, across different countries and jurisdictions.
  • A recent report from Changing Markets Foundation, released with additional comments by NGOs such as FERN, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Mighty Earth, and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, criticizes the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and proposes that certification standards are — as stated by the same NGOs — ‘holding back the progressive reform of the sector’ and may even be causing ‘active damage.’
  • This report disregards some of the important realities in the industry and on the ground, and fails to offer practical solutions. Simply bashing certification because of its imperfections puts the advances made at risk, instead of helping develop standards and synergies that facilitate compliance across the global palm oil supply chain.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

As one of the world’s most widely traded food and beverage commodities, palm oil is used in everything from baked goods to biofuels. It is produced in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America and sold to customers around the globe. Because no single jurisdiction governs this trade, it is extremely difficult to drive the broad-scale reform needed to counteract the negative impacts of the palm oil industry on forests, climate, biodiversity, and people living in the areas where this crop is produced.

So how do we make sustainable palm oil a reality?

Foremost, we need a global standard on what constitutes sustainable palm oil and a common system to implement it. Arriving at this consensus requires a convening body to connect every link in the palm oil supply chain, across different countries and jurisdictions. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has worked consistently for the past 14 years to drive this type of industry-wide agreement and change through its voluntary platform.

However, a recent report from Changing Markets Foundation, released with additional comments by NGOs such as FERN, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Mighty Earth, and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, criticizes the RSPO and proposes that certification standards are — as stated by the same NGOs — ‘holding back the progressive reform of the sector’ and may even be causing ‘active damage.’

This report disregards some of the important realities in the industry and on the ground, and fails to offer practical solutions. Simply bashing certification because of its imperfections puts the advances made at risk, instead of helping develop standards and synergies that facilitate compliance across the global palm oil supply chain.

Certification is not perfect, but RSPO has continuously welcomed feedback from NGOs and stakeholders in an effort to strengthen requirements and advance capacity for implementation and verification.

Meanwhile, the solutions promoted by RSPO have already brought many tangible impacts. An RSPO/World Resources Institute collaboration has increased transparency through use of tools like GeoRSPO and Global Forest Watch that pinpoint deforestation and fires linked to palm oil. This collaboration has helped RSPO better monitor what is happening in and around its members’ plantations and concessions (like spotting potential forest fires) and assisted RSPO member companies in engaging with their suppliers to solve underlying problems.

The 2017 RSPO Impacts Report showed a total of 189,777 hectares of ‘high conservation value’ landscapes (areas that are critical ecosystems for biodiversity and cultural values or have effects on larger landscapes) have been preserved from palm oil expansion and are currently being managed by RSPO members — a 21 percent increase from the previous year. Independent studies have also shown the impact certification has in protecting orangutan habitats and limiting deforestation, in some cases by a factor of 25 times compared to non-certified areas.

No silver bullet can tackle the global sustainability challenges of palm oil production. We need all the tools and support we can get. Despite its imperfections, the RSPO global platform and certification system — working across jurisdictions with 3,787 members from over 90 countries — serves as a starting point to unite the palm oil industry in its efforts to tackle this formidable task.

It is the shared responsibility of all those involved to improve certification systems, to drive uptake of sustainable products, and to bring into the fold the many actors who still operate without any commitments to sustainability. Only through broader, constructive collaboration can sustainable palm oil succeed.

Bornean orangutan. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Anne Rosenbarger is a RSPO Board of Governors Environmental NGO Member and Southeast Asia Commodities Manager for the World Resources Institute.

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