Can palm oil ever be sustainable?

Andy Green discusses how the supply chain could help make the world’s most consumed vegetable oil both viable and sustainable.

Palm oil is an emotive product. The supermarket Iceland has announced it is phasing palm oil out of its products, and consumers are regularly using social media to call on companies to change their palm oil policies. There are social, economic and environmental challenges associated with palm oil, but significant misconceptions also exist.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ plant. Palm oil has extremely good properties: it has a high yield; it is a low-tech crop, harvested by people rather than machines; and it is low waste. Cultivated properly, palm is sustainable and efficient, and offers social benefits in terms of employment and capital. The issues around it relate to land grabbing, deforestation – which impacts wildlife habitats, including endangered orangutans – and modern slavery. The problem is not the plant; the problem is humans.

Palm oil can be found in about half of all packaged products in supermarkets, and demand is increasing. If it is banned, manufacturers will need alternatives. The next best option is rapeseed, which is less efficient and requires more space to harvest. The land space needed to harvest the world’s palm oil requirement is roughly the size of Spain; the space needed for the same amount of rapeseed oil would be the size of Canada. 

It is not viable to sustain global requirements without palm oil – but if it is not grown and harvested responsibly, the impact will be enormous – and the orangutan could be driven into extinction.

Certified sustainable

How do we meet increasing demand for palm oil while ensuring that the environment, wildlife and local people are protected? The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established by a number of parties, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, and has taken on the task of solving this issue. 

The RSPO seeks to protect the environment for orangutans and other species at risk of extinction, and believes the answer is certification. It is not pushing for the removal of palm oil, but for it to be properly cultivated. Organisations can ensure that they are supporting this by certifying all products containing palm oil to the RSPO standard.

The RSPO’s definition of sustainable palm oil significantly limits High Conservation Value (HCV) forest clearance and prohibits burning – of waste products, for example – in its cultivation. The welfare of local communities that depend on the forest must be safeguarded, and employees must be offered fair conditions.

For the palm oil to be certified, each stage of the supply chain must be certified. The plantation, the mill, the crude oil refinery, the oil itself, the manufacturers, and anyone who takes legal ownership of the palm oil and physically handles it before it reaches the end-user all need to be individually audited by an independent RSPO-accredited certification body. As each stage is certified, it leaves a paper trail, so the certification can easily be traced. The certification only focuses on the palm and palm derivatives, which tend to be a very narrow part of the business stream; usually, very few changes are required.

After being vetted and accepted as a member of the RSPO and putting in place what is known as an ‘internal control system’, a business wanting to be certified is ready to be audited. Auditors confirm production processes are adequate, approve documentary records, and check the accuracy of sales and marketing literature. This usually takes about one day. Provided there are no non-compliances, certification is issued shortly after. Each certificate lasts five years, with yearly ‘surveillance’ audits along the way.

There are cost implications involved in certification, and the RSPO standard is currently voluntary – but for businesses wanting to offer a sustainable product, act against modern slavery and protect biodiversity, this process is crucial. Plus, with consumers expecting organisations to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, and such high stakes on the line in terms of wildlife and communities, can any business afford not to?  

Andy Green is certification sales manager at BM TRADA


Image Credit | iStock
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