Sustainable palm oil: A complex issue

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With new labelling choices launched recently in Australia to certify products that are palm oil free, opinions differ on the best way to deal with the complex issue.

The story of palm oil and its supply is a complex one, sometimes pitting environmentalists against economists, and at times against each other. Many of the facts are simple and undeniable. Palm oil appears in many products on supermarket shelves, ranging from foods such as margarine, chocolate and ice cream to soaps and cosmetics. It is also used in fuels for vehicles and power plants.

The problem is, as The State of the World’s Forests 2016 (a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United nations) points out, some palm oil plantations contribute to deforestation. This, in turn, leads to a loss of habitat for animals, including the orangutan which has become a poster child for organisations seeking to increase consumer awareness around the issue.

Many in the food manufacturing industry have started to address the problem. For example, US agribusiness giant Cargill suspended business with a Guatemalan producer in December over breaches of the firm’s sustainable palm oil policy, and countries such as Malaysia are introducing their own certification processes.

A 2013 report commissioned by WWF-Australia and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), Palm Oil in Australia Facts, Issues and Challenges, states that “the plight of the orangutan has led to public engagement on the production and use of palm oil”.

However, it continues: “Palm oil provides opportunities to support economic and social development in some of the poorest areas in the world.”

With all this in mind, we looked at some of the groups addressing the complicated and often controversial issue.

Orangutan Alliance

The Melbourne-based Orangutan Alliance was launched in early 2017 and instituted its International No Palm Oil Certification Program later in the year. Its trademark is pending by IP Australia.

Founder and chairperson Maria Abadilla said the organisation was established to support conservation projects, and does that through its Palm Oil Free Certification and grants.

Existing legislation in Australia or New Zealand does not require transparency in labelling, she said, and even when it does appear on an ingredients list, there are more than 200 alternative names for palm oil.

“People need to know that, to be able to see the saturated fats, whether palm oil is present if that’s what they’re looking for, but also for their choice,” she said.

Palm oil is a complex issue, but an ecological emergency, Abadilla said.

“The solution will need to come from different groups from new technology, policy change to reforestation,” she said. “Orangutan Alliance is here to provide consumer choice particularly in the absence of clear labelling in some countries.”

Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Program 

Bev Luff, spokeswoman for the Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Program (POFCAP), said the POFCAP Trademark was approved by IP Australia and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in November 2016, and the program launched last year to coincide with International Orangutan Day on August 19.

The certification was also approved last year by the Intellectual Property Office of the United Kingdom, the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office and the Austrian Patent Office, she said. Applications are pending in a further 11 countries.

Luff said while POFCAP supports the idea of “non-conflict palm oil”,
as POFCAP refers to sustainable production, only 17 per cent of all palm oil is currently certified as such.

Many organisations had worked hard to discourage deforestation and educate the public and industries of the issues surrounding palm oil production, she said, but the rate
of deforestation continues to be alarming.

“There are also people who avoid palm oil for health reasons – they may or may not care about the environmental issues surrounding its production but they care what they put in their bodies and in their homes,” said Luff.

Luff said POFCAP was not an educational, conservation or political program. “POFCAP purely exists to certify if a product is 100 per cent palm oil free,” she said.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The inaugural meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was held in Malaysia in 2003.

The not-for-profit unites stakeholders from all sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

The organisation not only certifies palm oil as sustainable, but oversees the trade in RSPO Credits, which promote the production of certified palm oil. Working in a similar manner to carbon offsets, an RSPO credit is proof that one tonne of certified palm oil was produced by an RSPO- certified company or independent producer, and has entered the palm oil supply chain.

The RSPO has more than 3,000 members worldwide who represent all links along the palm oil supply chain.

They have committed to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.

WWF

Josh Bishop, head of Sustainable Food for WWF-Australia, agrees that one of the most significant threats to the world’s biodiversity, mainly because the plantations displace tropical rainforests that are the habitat for many endangered species.

WWF looks for ways to reconcile the need for food, including palm oil, with the conservation of ecosystems and wildlife, he said.

“Our interest in palm oil is partly to document and confront the threat but also to try and find practical solutions that are economically feasible and help us feed humanity without destroying the planet.”

Part of the solution is having agreed land use plans agreed to by all stakeholders, including the industry and rural communities, he said.

Palm oil is used in the production of everything from margarine, chocolate and ice cream to soaps and cosmetics.
Palm oil.

 

“And then, in those areas where food production is agreed to be the best use of the land, try to ensure that the production practices are as responsible as possible, which means minimising impact on wildlife but also minimising impact on the climate, on water resources, and any adverse impacts on rural communities.”

WWF helped establish the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and argues it is possible to achieve “good” palm oil. WWF recognises the importance of palm oil to the economies of many developing countries, and that its production is a much more efficient use of land than that of canola oil or soy oil, Bishop said.

About 20 per cent of global palm oil production is certified, but he acknowledged the provenance of the remaining 80 per cent is problematic.

“It is definitely a problem,” he said, “but there is a practical solution that is available, it’s not terrifically expensive, and there’s no reason why companies can’t switch to sustainable palm oil, including physical supplies of palm oil. It is available in Australia for those who want it.”

AFGC

James Mathews director of ommunications for the AFGC, said palm oil is a fundamental ingredient in some products in the supply chain and there is a lot of consumer misunderstanding about the issue.

“The industry takes information to its consumers seriously, and this is a huge ecological issue of which many companies have invested significantly in sustainable palm oil supply and certified palm oil supply,” he said.

“We are aware that while there is an ecological issue, there’s also the fact that many communities rely on palm oil for their economic lifeblood.”

The AFGC does not support specific trademarks or certifications but believes that improving consumer awareness and transparency of sourcing is vital.

Mathews said there is a risk of demonising an entire industry when there are organisations that are trying to ensure its production in a sustainable, responsible manner.

“You have to be careful to make sure the information is available to consumers, that consumers have some awareness that there is responsible palm oil sourcing through some of the company policies, and we would encourage more and more companies to do that,” he said.

“We would want to act as an incentive, not a disincentive.”