KUALA LUMPUR (May 26): Europe should not ignore the Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scheme and accept it as the basis for allowing palm oil exports from Indonesia and Malaysia, said EU-Asean Business Council Executive Director Chris Humphrey.
“The RSPO scheme should also be supported to strengthen its certification requirements so that the bulk of palm oil exports from Indonesia and Malaysia can be accepted into Europe,” Humphrey said.
“Like it or not, palm oil is here to stay,” he said in an exclusive email interview with theedgemalaysia.com.
Humphrey said that boycotting or denigrating palm oil provides no viable solution.
“Instead, we must channel our efforts into demanding more decisive action to address the issues and actively promote adopting sustainable palm oil practices.
“By advocating for sustainability and supporting responsible production, we can work towards a more balanced and environmentally conscious palm oil industry,” he said.
In 2018, an EU renewable-energy directive required the phasing out of palm-based transportation fuels by 2030 because of their perceived link to deforestation.
Indonesia and Malaysia — which account for about 80% of the world’s palm oil producers — have launched separate cases with the World Trade Organisation, saying the fuel measure is discriminatory and constitutes a trade barrier.
Separately, RSPO, in a response to EU’s new ruling, said in December 2022 it is confident that its voluntary certification standard will be an important tool for companies in doing their risk assessment and provide a clear contribution to their compliance with the EU regulation.
“The EU is the world’s biggest market for sustainable palm oil, with over 90% of the palm oil imported into the region certified under the CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil).
“If the EU closes its doors, palm oil producers will have no choice but to increase their supply to markets with less stringent or no requirements for sustainability. Certification is, after all, costly,” said Humphrey.
He noted that palm oil had played a vital role in boosting economic growth for producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia — crucial for developing countries where the fruit is grown and harvested.
He said denying the industry’s past as a destructive force that wreaked havoc on the environment, communities, and human rights would be useless.
“That said, following intense scrutiny and pressure from consumers, rights groups, investors, importing countries, and even the governments of palm oil-producing countries, the industry has begun to clean up its act,” he said. “This, too, must not be denied,” he added.
Humphrey said companies and plantations that have become certified under the RSPO scheme are working to ensure traceability across their supply chains.
Additionally, he said there is commitment at the world’s two largest palm oil producers to zero-deforestation policies and responsible land management, and measures to protect high conservation value (HCV) areas, high carbon stock (HCS) forests, and peatland are in place.
Humphrey said programmes had been initiated to support smallholders with more training, technical assistance, and financial support and to address other social issues related to palm oil production, like the protection of the rights of local communities.
“Let’s talk numbers. Palm oil-related deforestation fell by 42% in the first six months of 2021, year-on-year (71% compared with the first half of 2019), with 11,500 hectares of forests lost in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea,” he said, citing a satellite analysis published by Chain Reaction Research (CRR), a risk analysis group.
The analysis also noted that palm oil deforestation was reduced to 19,894 ha in the first half of 2020 from 40,000 ha in the first half of 2019.
“Yes, as with all things, more needs to be done. But the truth is that palm oil production has become more sustainable despite what naysayers say,” he said.
Humphrey added that transitioning to alternative vegetable oils like sunflower, rapeseed, or soybean is not a solution as they have considerably lower yields per hectare than palm.
“Because of its high yield, palm oil requires only around one-ninth of the land of its counterparts.
“To keep pace with growing food demand would require 36 million hectares of additional palm oil land, whereas soybean, the second most popular oil crop, would need 204 million more hectares,” he said.
Humphrey said that instead of offering only rhetoric, one solution that can be provided is to support certification, which will nudge the palm oil industry towards even greater sustainability.
Thus, he concluded that efforts should be made to reverse the pariah status of palm oil in developed countries so that products containing oil that is certified deforestation-free or sustainably produced can be accepted back into the fold.