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Jakarta Post

Palm oil: Sustainability is a shared problem

  • Dato Carl Bek-Nielsen

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Kuala Lumpur   /   Tue, September 15, 2020   /   11:31 am
Palm oil: Sustainability is a shared problem Harvest time: A worker gathers oil palm fruit bunches at a plantation in Lampung. Indonesia and Malaysia, the first- and second-largest palm oil producers, have threatened to challenge the European Union via the World Trade Organization if the EU continues to phase out palm oil from transportation fuel. (The Jakarta Post/R. Berto Wedhatama)

Oil palm producers have for the last 15 years become the lightning rod for the public’s growing anger on issues relating to deforestation, global warming, subpar labor practices and transboundary haze.

Only a silent few have questioned these allegations, leading the vast majority of the public to swallow these headlines hook, line and sinker — leaving the narrative unchallenged. It is as if the endless supply of information in today’s modern era, through quick and easy forms of digital content has reached a point of overload.

Sadly, it has worn us down and induced a premature form of mental fatigue, taking away our ability to distinguish between credible research and catchy “clickbait”, and ultimately what is right and wrong, and whether we should even question it.

The palm industry is a vital agricultural player today, globally. While it only occupies less than 0.5 percent of the total area under agriculture today, it accounts for 37 percent of all the oils and fats produced in the world and continues, in spite of the COVID-19 calamity, to secure jobs for well over 5 million people globally, most of whom are smallholder farmers who depend on this crop for their livelihood.

Is everything perfect and rosy? Absolutely not. The oil palm, like all agricultural crops, requires one thing — land. And this is where the dilemma arises. In this context, we must acknowledge that oil palm plantations have contributed to large tracks of deforestation, even though over the last 25 years they have accounted for less than 5 percent of global deforestation. Boycotting palm oil and replacing this with alternative vegetable oils is of course a decision that people or big brands are free to make.

However, the price for such action will be high, as it is proven beyond doubt that replacing palm oil with any alternative vegetable oil will require up to 10 times more land to produce the same quantity of oil.

Even the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have recognized this, and support the production and use of sustainable palm oil, thereby preventing greater impact on the environment, biodiversity and communities.

The problem with studies conducted by the critics is that they tend to single out the oil palm without putting things in perspective, and inform the readers that commodities such as beef, soy, maize, poultry, timber and more account for over 90 percent of the world’s deforestation today, and are still in the infancy when it comes to providing consumers with a supply chain that does not come from recently deforested land.

Palm oil, however, has such a scheme in place today, where buyers can be assured of no deforestation, no new peat development, and no exploitation of workers. It is called the Principles and Criteria, which is set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — a standard that I can state with supreme confidence goes beyond any similar sustainability standard in the world today - even when it comes to olive oil production in Spain, rapeseed production in France, soy production in the United States, or canola production in Australia.

The palm oil sector is far from perfect and I will be the first to state that there is still a long road ahead in terms of making sustainable palm oil the norm, but the first steps were taken over 15 years ago to create a multi-stakeholder platform, where buyers and consumers could be assured that the palm oil in the products they use and consume has indeed been grown and sourced sustainably.

The aspirations remain high, and today we see the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification schemes, providing an amazing platform to raise the floor of the “many” instead of just focusing on raising the ceiling of the “few”.

Together, we will drive the RSPO, MSPO and ISPO standards forward, regardless of the spurious claims by critics and hopefully take inspiration from the words of wisdom of the late Chinese philosopher Confucius: “It is better to light a candle than to curse darkness”.

Sustainable palm oil is the “light” — it is the future — and any efforts to squash this movement will only move us back into darkness, where we will lose our way, remain silent and fail to speak up when half-baked truths grab headlines. In the end, this is about taking ownership and holding fast — especially when the headwinds are the fiercest.

It is about appreciating that sustainability is a shared problem, requiring individual changes that must start today. This includes you.

We must acknowledge that oil palm plantations have contributed to large tracks of deforestation, even though over the last 25 years they have accounted for less than 5 percent of global deforestation.

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Chief executive director of United Plantations Bhd and cochair of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.