Is palm oil pledge worth the paper it’s written on?

Companies are pondering their next move after experts raised questions over the environmental value of the CSPO scheme. By David Burrows.

There is “no significant difference” between Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) and non-certified when it comes to environmental protection. The claims, in a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, heap further pressure on the scheme led by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

“The only small benefits were to certified companies which were associated with marginally higher yields,” said Courtney Morgans from the University of Queensland.

Her study, which also involved the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and Borneo Futures, found “little evidence” that critically endangered species such as orangutans were being protected. There was also no indication that CSPO was improving levels of wealth or improving access to health infrastructure for villagers neighbouring the plantations.

The RSPO’s principles and criteria are in need of substantial improvements and rigorous enforcement, said Morgans. “Certification is good in theory and RSPO is the best vehicle currently available to improve the sustainability of the palm oil industry, but there is significant room for improvement.”

Some might say that’s an understatement, with the findings coming hot on the heels of other reports criticising the scheme in its current guise. In April, for example, an analysis of sustainability schemes including RSPO, by Changing Markets, concluded that they have “provided cover for companies that are destroying the environment”. None of the palm oil schemes assessed have been effective at slowing down deforestation, the authors wrote.

Rewind a little further and there was the 2015 investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency that found certified economic operators committing systemic and serious breaches of RSPO principles. Companies auditing RSPO-certified plantations were also found to be failing to identify violations – and, in some cases, colluding with plantations to deliberately disguise them – leading to deforestation, human trafficking and intimidation of environmentalists.

In between there have been countless reports, scandals and accusations levied at the RSPO. However, there is also longstanding criticism of companies that are failing to source sustainable palm oil. Foodservice, in particular, has been found wanting. But what should companies do if CSPO is really as crap as its critics argue?

One option is to not use any. In April, the frozen food specialist Iceland announced it will stop using palm oil in all its own-label food until it’s happy with guarantees that there’s no rainforest destruction in the supply chain.

That is easier said than done – palm oil has unique properties as a food ingredient (which is why production rocketed from 15.2m tonnes in 1995 to 62.6 million in 2015 – and shows no sign of slowing). However, Iceland doesn’t use that much – 500 tonnes, which meant it wasn’t on the latest palm oil scorecard produced by WWF.

The likes of Nestlé, Unilever and Mars would find it a much tougher proposition. Ditto foodservice companies such as McDonald’s, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Restaurant Brands International, which use more than 160,000 tonnes combined.

The other problem with such a switch is the potential to do even more environmental and economic damage.

RSPO has been at pains to flag a report by a report by WWF Germany in 2016 that concluded replacing palm oil with rapeseed, sunflower, coconut and soya oil would require five times as much cropland. RSPO has also pointed out that 4.5m people earn their living from palm oil production, so “stopping the production of palm oil would mean these people will no longer be able to support their families”.

Last week, a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that 193 species were under threat from the expansion of palm oil, with biodiversity loss now threatening to “spill over” to tropical Africa and America. However, saying “no” to palm oil would likely displace rather than halt biodiversity loss, said the organisation’s director general Inger Andersen. “Half of the world’s population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.”

Even Greenpeace is cautious about the implications of this approach. “If all consumer goods companies stopped using palm oil, demand would switch to another vegetable oil – perhaps soy, rapeseed or sunflower. When grown in vast quantities all of these alternative oils have serious environmental problems, including rainforest destruction. The reason palm oil’s popularity rocketed in the first place was due to it being a very land-efficient crop.”

As Debbie Fletcher, a principal consultant at Eunomia, suggested on the Isonomia blog this month, it’s pretty complicated. “We must weigh up the interests of endangered species and the environment against the interests of rural farmers, and the interests of rural farmers against the interests of indigenous communities. And if we were to ban palm oil outright, where would the land come from for growing alternative oil crops?”

Time to reform the CSPO, then? In its defence, the RSPO has rarely denied that it has to improve. “We fully share Iceland’s concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil,” said the organisation’s CEO, Darrel Webber. And the standards are currently being revised, with a chance that new ones could be in place before the end of the year.

However, change at this level takes time and with every new study or scandal, the pressure to react more quickly intensifies. Pressure from NGOs such as Greenpeace has already led many companies to commit to only using “deforestation-free” palm oil products – those made exclusively using palm oil from plantations that have not cleared forests.

The fact that RSPO certification does not currently guarantee palm oil is completely deforestation-free remains a major problem. RSPO certification aims to protect virgin forest and forest of “high conservation value” but does not cover other forests that have been logged or regrown after clearance.

However, there has recently been a multi-party agreement on a working definition of “deforestation”, expanding it beyond purely virgin forests, and the RSPO is considering a proposal to update its standard with this definition in late 2018.

Progress towards sustainable – truly sustainable – palm oil has been painfully slow. Kicking companies up the backside never hurts, but kick too hard and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see others, fed up with the pace of change and the bad headlines, suddenly pull the plug on palm oil. Compass and Sodexo, for example, only use 700 and 1,805 tonnes respectively, and could be prime candidates – and a study by Imperial College London last month will have given them further pause for thought. Genuinely deforestation-free products are “problematic to guarantee”, the experts said. Problematic, but not impossible, they said.

As the conservation scientist Erik Meijaard wrote in a piece for the Jakarta Globe in 2014: “We need environmentalists to work with producers and really find out the best cost-effective way to maximize yields with minimum social and environmental costs. Without the input from scientists and others, the industry is unlikely to significantly change. There is a role for hard-core advocacy, but there also needs to be space for effective engagement.”

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