Forests Week: A poster child for deforestation, palm oil is slowly moving towards sustainability

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The European Union (EU) is a major consumer of agricultural commodities, grown or reared around the world in areas which used to be forests.

When we buy our sugar, coffee, chocolate, leather, burgers, soy milk or wooden garden chairs we may be helping to fund deforestation.

It is estimated that 53 per cent of those areas cleared in recent decades have been for a variety of agricultural commodities and, through its collective consumption, the EU has become one of world’s major drivers of deforestation.

It is not only deforestation that has been a problem for cash crops – abuse of the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, child labour, pollution, wildlife declines and the destruction of habitats such as grasslands and marshes have all been linked to agriculture, notably the palm oil, beef, soy and timber industries..

In response to such concerns, there has been an increasing number of transparency initiatives, certification schemes, private sector and government commitments, all pledging increased sustainability.

palm oil forest loss

Ancestral forest lands cleared for palm oil, Indonesia (c) EIAimage

However, much confusion has arisen as to what ‘sustainability’ really means and what each will deliver. Moreover, as many of these endeavours are voluntary or self-policing, implementation has been slow and independent verification lacking.

Our Forests campaigners work with a particular emphasis on increasing the sustainability of palm oil. As the world’s most-consumed vegetable oil, it is found in hundreds of different products, often in tiny amounts – an estimated half of all supermarket goods contain palm oil, ranging from chocolate, biscuits and bread to frozen foods, laundry detergents and shampoos.

Palm oil hit the UK headlines this year when the supermarket Iceland announced it was removing palm oil from all of its own-brand products as it believes there is no such thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil. Now the high-end department store Selfridges is stocking Iceland’s own-brand mince pies in the run-up to Christmas and aims to become palm oil-free itself by the end of 2019 over similar sustainability concerns.

Boycotting palm oil is generally not considered the answer. Palm oil is one of most efficient crops per hectare and substitution risks other crops being used which cause just as many problems. Palm oil, potentially, can be sustainable but we need better assurance of it.

oil palm fruits - Shutterstock

Oil palm fruits

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), considered the best palm oil certification scheme, has not sufficiently delivered on sustainability and we have called for it to robustly include measures to ensure forests are not cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. A new RSPO standard is set to be adopted next week, which will better incorporate standards of no deforestation.

Likewise, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification scheme needs major reform. We and our local partners in the country have been keenly involved in the reform process and producing position papers; in September, Indonesian President Joko Widodo halted the signing of a new weak ISPO following the voicing of such concerns.

Multiple palm oil companies have voluntarily adopted stricter, progressive sustainability commitments themselves. Yet these lack standardisation, are not uniformly adopted and are not legally binding. We have been actively tracking the fulfillment of these commitments.

We believe there is an urgent need for European-level regulation to ensure palm oil and other commodities are genuinely sustainable and deforestation-free. Drawing on other regulations, such as the EU Timber Regulation focused on combating illegal timber, we are calling for new due diligence legislation to ensure deforestation-free, sustainable and legal imports and are working to drive such new legislative changes in both the EU and the UK as part of the UK NGO Forest Coalition.

Forest land cleared for palm oil, Indo

Forest land cleared for palm oil, Indonesia (c) EIAimage

Together with several other European NGOs, we have called on the European Commission to develop an Action Plan on Deforestation and Forest Degradation (EUAPDD). Many EU Member states have heard our concerns and, in September, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution in favour of EU action on forests. In response to the resolution, we are expecting the EU to put forth an EUAPDD soon. To make this a reality, we remain in continuous dialogue with EU through face-to-face meetings, letters, statements and social media communications.

An all-inclusive approach, which we support, has been outlined in an EU Forest Manifesto which highlights the need to address the rights of indigenous people, land tenure, agriculture policies and climate change.

Additionally, we strongly urge that trade agreements, financial institutions and public agencies do not lend or invest in companies that contribute to deforestation or violate human rights.

As consumption increases worldwide, we hope to see such regulation developed in other markets too.