BIOLOGISTS AT the University of York are part of a new initiative to review the standards for sustainable palm oil. Jennifer Lucey, a researcher in the biology department, explains the challenges ahead and her hopes for the project.
David Burrows (DB): Does the food industry see sustainable palm oil as an important issue?
Jennifer Lucey (JL): Sustainable palm oil (SPO) has a major public awareness problem, with much of the general public being vaguely aware that oil palm is “bad” but not engaged with the issues. There have been instances where companies have added a “sustainable palm oil” label to their products and seen sales fall, presumably because previously, consumers were not aware there was any palm oil in the product at all.
DB: Sales of certified SPO (CSPO) are still quite low, aren’t they?
JL: Many large companies, including the supermarkets, have commitments to source 100% CSPO in the next few years, many by 2015, and so apparently low uptake of CSPO currently is partly a result of a lag time as companies gear up for the shift.
DB: So is it a priority issue for grocers and catering companies then?
JL: Many companies have commitments to sourcing sustainable palm oil because of their wider corporate commitments to CSR,and in order to anticipate future problems, rather than in response to current public demand. Informing the public about the extent of palm oil in products they use – about 50% of supermarket products contain it – and informing them that their choice is between products with sustainable palm oil or with unsustainable palm oil, rather than between products with or without palm oil, is key to making the sourcing of sustainable palm oil a priority within the food industry and for consumers.
DB: How do you think the new network you’re involved with will help?
JL: The network has been established by the SEnSOR [Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Oil Palm Research] Project, and it will be conducting independent scientific research to test the effectiveness of the roundtable on SPO [which sets the standards for certification] and to recommend improvements. Providing a robust scientific evidence base for the effectiveness of RSPO’s certification standards will help to improve the credibility of the RSPO standards.
DB: Will the results be published?
JL: The findings and recommendations will be publicly available, and will also be useful to the development of national standards and for users and consumers of palm oil who wish to better define their own commitments to sustainability. The aim of the network is to communicate with people and organisations who develop or influence policy – businesses that produce, trade, use and sell palm oil and its products are important in influencing policy. We already have representatives from businesses and the consumer goods forum in the network, and anticipate that the membership of the network will expand.
DB: How will you define whether the network is a success or not?
JL: The network will produce a series of documents for policymakers on priority issues in the development of sustainable palm oil. A key aim of the network is to create and maintain dialogue and exchange knowledge between scientists and policymakers. The first document will be produced in the next few months, with a focus on greenhouse gas emissions from plantations, especially related to land use change, and will mark the first milestone of the network’s activities.