The Palm Scribe

The total football of sustainable palm oil

Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

By Fitrian Ardiansyah

The discourse on sustainable palm oil has been going on for more than a decade, and it was highlighted prominently in events such as the one held by ADP (Amsterdam Declaration Partnership) in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in June and in other events such as held by RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), EPOA (European Palm Oil Alliance) and IDH-Sustainable Trade Initiative.

As a commodity, palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil. The Oil World in 2016 recorded that palm oil has 3.8 tons per hectare (average yield of oil) compared to rapeseed (0.8), sunflower (0.7) and soy (0.5). Production volume of palm oil worldwide increased significantly from 56 million metric tons (2012/13) to 73 million (2018/19), as published by Statista.

It is clear, therefore, that if anyone wants to replace palm oil with other vegetable oils, the size of land required to grow such vegetable oils may be double, triple or even more. In its recent report, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) further states that given that other oil crops require up to nine times as much land to produce the same amount of oil than palm oil, its replacement would significantly increase the total land area used for vegetable oil production to meet global demand.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the top palm oil producers, followed by a number of tropical countries including Thailand, Colombia, and Nigeria. Other tropical nations such as Guatemala, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Honduras, and Brazil are among the top 10 global producers of palm oil.

In terms of consumption, palm oil products and derivatives are widely used, including in chips, fried rice, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and biofuel. As Hillary Rosner wrote for the National Geographic in 2018, palm oil has become ubiquitous in our lives. Consumption of palm oil has grown significantly especially in India, EU28 (European Union and 28 member states), China, as well as in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The fact that these tropical countries harbor large remaining forests and other important ecosystems, as well as million people living at or under the poverty line, mostly triggers and sustains the debate related to palm oil production, poverty alleviation and environmental or forest protection.

Various organizations, for example, have reported that the establishment of oil palm plantations (i.e. the land clearing and related activities) coincided with the destruction of rainforest, peatlands, and habitat of biodiversity, massive forest and land fires, and displacement of local and indigenous communities.

Although replacing palm oil is not advocated as a solution, IUCN reminds the public and key stakeholders that oil palm expansion has impacted and could further affect 54 percent of threatened mammals and 64 percent of threatened birds globally. This global organization recommends that palm oil needs to be produced more sustainably by avoiding deforestation and cutting non-food palm oil use.

The United Nations and the World Bank, at different occasions, have urged collaboration between the international community and palm oil growers in order to create sustainable strategies that will save fragile ecosystems, as well as support small farmers and improve their productivity so those rural communities can receive direct benefit while also helping the protection of our valuable environment.

The creation of RSPO in 2004 and the strengthening of this multi-stakeholders’ organization show that collaboration among buyers and producers of palm oil, supported by non-governmental organizations can lead to good progress in sustainability. As of 2019, 19 percent of palm oil globally had been certified by RSPO (i.e. in terms of the size of oil palm land, it is 47 times the size of Singapore island).

The debate, nevertheless, still continues. Some organizations even call for stronger measures and few calls for a boycott of palm oil. On the other hand, producing countries argue that the development of this commodity has helped their governments to alleviate poverty in rural communities, in which many palm oil farmers reside.

Key producing countries are arguing that if cultivated sustainably, palm oil can help millions of people out of poverty by enabling local economic development and contribute to environmental protection.

Indonesia has introduced measures such as a palm oil moratorium (i.e. no new licenses are given for palm oil, and the focus is given more on improving productivity in existing plantations and smallholders’ lands), a national action plan on sustainable palm oil, the ISPO (Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil) including the latest efforts to strengthen this standard, financing for replanting, and support for smallholders.

Malaysia has also announced that it will not allow further expansion of oil palm plantations. Minister of Primary Industries, Teresa Kok said that the country is strengthening MSPO (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil) certification and the target is to have 100% MSPO certification by this year. At the same time, MPOB (The Malaysian Palm Oil Board) and different agencies are focusing their efforts to support smallholders in improving productivity and sustainability across the country.

The pledges, commitments, and programs of these two countries, followed by other countries such as in Latin America, are ambitious and challenging to achieve. Collaboration, partnership, and support from the private sector, consumer countries and other organizations are urgently needed.

Looking at the value chains of palm oil from upstreams to consumers, it is clear that no single entity or country can address sustainable palm oil issues alone.

The creation of ADP with the support of member countries (i.e. the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany) is expected to facilitate solution-oriented dialogues which in turn can lead to sharpening programs and financing for sustainable palm oil and more importantly supporting small farmers in key producing countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Colombia.

The recent dialogues in Utrecht, at ADP or RSPO events, show there are solutions available but consumers, traders, producers, consuming and producing countries need to work together. The investment needed to support smallholders, including for sustainability and replanting, is enormous and mobilization of resources are crucial.

The implementation of sustainable palm oil needs to be prototyped at a scalable level, for instance, at a state, province or district level. Collaboration and co-investment in improving production, protection of forest and inclusion of smallholders means that an integrated and a comprehensive approach is necessary – the kind of total football approach in which key stakeholders must chip in and complement each other.

This, of course, is aligned with the last SDG (sustainable development goal), “partnerships”, between governments, the private sector, and civil society. Such inclusive partnerships built upon mutual trust shared visions, principles, and values balancing social and economic development while preserving the environment at the center is key in the journey of sustainable palm oil.

As a famous phrase states this clearly, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

*The writer is Executive Chairman of IDH (Inisiatif Dagang Hijau) and Representative for IDH-Sustainable Trade Initiative in Indonesia and Malaysia. He can be reached at  

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