The Palm Oil Conundrum: The need for more systemic solutions

Nov 29, 2018 | 0 comments

The Palm Oil debate illustrates that complex issues can be hijacked by over simplified messages, tugging at consumer heartstrings, which in the end could do more harm than good. It’s time for those organisations advocating certification-based approaches, to move from a siloed market-based approach to commodity sustainability, to one which recognises the need for more systemic and transformational solutions.

Not many people will have missed the recent storm of controversy surrounding UK Frozen Foods supermarket Iceland, recent advert highlighting the issue of Palm Oil. As a consumer, who would not be moved as a young orangutan called ‘Rang Tang’ telling a little girl about its plight and the loss of its rainforest home.

Approximately 50% of all food products brought from supermarkets contain a form of palm / palm kernel oil. It is also an ingredient found in many cosmetics, soaps and detergents. Over the last 50 years the massive rise in palm oil production has been a key driver of forest loss in many parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of West Africa, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, reductions in water quality and biodiversity loss. There have also been significant human rights issues as a result.

Boycotting palm oil may seem like a simple solution and is a natural reaction of consumers wanting to save the Orangutan. There is no doubt, that boycotting can be a powerful tool and force for change. However, when it comes to Palm Oil, boycotting is likely to lead to a whole bunch of more significant unintended consequences. A consumer switch to other vegetable oils (sunflower, rapeseed, soya, coconut etc.), without a proper assessment of the social and environmental consequences that would result (including possible displacement of biodiversity loss), could potentially be even more catastrophic.

Compared to other sources of vegetable oil (e.g. rapeseed and soybean oil) palm oil production is an extremely efficient way of producing vegetable oils, yielding up to five times more oil per unit of land than others and requiring far less pesticide and fertiliser.  We can’t also ignore the fact that some 3 million smallholder households in the developing world rely on palm oil for their livelihoods.

The Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO), the main certification body, made up of producers, processors manufacturers, retailers, and NGOs, is far from perfect. It has in recent years, rightly been heavily criticised for failing to support smallholder palm oil producers, continued human rights abuses and ignoring the need to take a high carbon stocks approach. At its annual meeting held in Sabah, Malaysia (November 2018), it resolved to address these issues by adopting a strengthened certification standard.

The solutions to the palm oil conundrum are not easy, but a boycott is not the solution in this instance. Instead businesses, governments and civil society organisations should be focussing on two  key priorities:

  • Continued Improvement of RSPO – I believe that the RSPO is the best vehicle currently available to improve the sustainability of the palm oil industry. Businesses and consumers alike should continue to support it and ensure it implements the changes It has promised. With the scheme in the spotlight and pressure to stop deforestation greater than ever, the RSPO is at a critical crossroads. It probably has five years to demonstrate that it can make a difference to prevent deforestation and improve the lives of palm oil producers.
  • The need for certification bodies and businesses to think beyond a commodity ‘market-based approach’ to a ‘systems approach’ – For too long many businesses and certification bodies (not just relating to Palm Oil but Soya, Beef, seafood etc) have placed all their eggs in the certification basket. They have focused on theory of change based on ‘tipping the market’ – the theory going, that when you reach a certain volume of sustainably produced commodities, the rest of the market will follow, catalysing a rapid transition of sustainability across the rest of the commodity market. Bingo, problems solved! The Achilles Heel of this approach is that is fails to recognise that to produce key global commodities within planetary limits, you need to address rising demand (resulting from changing consumption patterns and global population growth), So taking Palm oil as the example, the RSPO needs to start thinking more systemically, thinking about how to address rising demand as well as production sustainability. They should be posing and responding to the following key questions; What are the key environmental, health, social and economic impacts of a reduction in palm oil production and an increase in production of other oils? What is the right balance of different vegetable oils that will meet the needs of a growing global population? How can we work across the vegetable oil sector to tackle these issues? To do this, the RSPO needs to shift from a narrow frame of thinking – the answers to the palm oil conundrum may lay beyond the palm oil industry.
4140cookie-checkThe Palm Oil Conundrum: The need for more systemic solutions

Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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