This week in London, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is
meeting for its annual conference. Malaysia is one of the world's largest
palm oil producers, and many Malaysian companies are long-serving members of
the RSPO, which was founded by the environmental NGO, the Worldwide Fund for
The positive case for palm oil is, unfortunately, little known in Britain.
The fact that palm oil is the most productive, and most land-efficient
oilseed crop is not widely understood. This means, for example, that oil
palm produces the same amount of oil as soybean but uses 10 times less land.
Yes, a factor of 10. When we talk in the region of millions of tonnes of
oils being needed each year, that is a lot of land saved by planting
palm oil. Palm oil's health properties are also often overlooked - palm oil has
been credited by leading nutritionists with reducing dangerous trans fats in
the Western diet (palm oil is a perfect, and much healthier, replacement).
The most important socio-economic fact about palm oil, though, is the
presence of small farmers, such as the 200,000 in Malaysia alone. Small
farmers represent almost 40 per cent of the palm oil land in Malaysia - the
industry is made out of a happy blend of larger plantation groups, and small
farmer cooperatives. It is a classic win-win: small farmers have provided a
backbone for the industry to grow and succeed, and at the same time,
families and communities across Malaysia have been lifted from poverty into
prosperity, thanks to the benefits of palm oil cultivation.
Only around half of all RSPO-certified palm oil is currently being bought.
Producers in Malaysia and elsewhere have spent valuable time, effort and
money to ensure certification - but the companies in Europe are not buying
RSPO-certified oil, which means that the investment from Malaysian producers
is not being repaid.
RSPO is one of many organizations in Europe attempting to communicate about
palm oil. Unfortunately, more radical forces are currently in the
ascendance. The for-profit NGO, The Forest Trust (TFT), is lobbying for 'No
Deforestation' policies that go well beyond RSPO. Several major companies,
including Unilever, have signed up. As with many simple slogans, 'No
Deforestation' sounds appealing at first glance, but is in fact far more
Small farmers are those who will be affected by the new campaign. The TFT
standards require costly administration and monitoring, which small farmers
simply cannot afford. One major European company has already admitted that
80 per cent of its small farmers will be 'culled' from the supply chain as a
result of the complex and expensive 'No Deforestation' standards.
Small farmers should not be suffering at the hands of environmental
campaigns. Some NGOs simply have the wrong set of priorities. The United
Nations clearly sets out that sustainable development is based on economic,
social and environmental progress. Small farmers in Malaysia provide all
three: but TFT only wants to focus on the environmental. This is harmful,
The challenge for the members of RSPO this week, and the challenge for all
Western companies in relation to palm oil is: what will you do? Small
farmers, who make up a large percentage of palm oil production, and for whom
the crop is a valuable lifeline, should not be sacrificed on an altar of NGO
one-upmanship. How will RSPO ensure that small farmers can genuinely
participate and be recognized, rather than - at present - shut out due to
the over-representation of Western commercial and NGO interests?
It is not easy to know the answer for those RSPO delegates attending this
week. For small farmers, an answer may be presenting itself independently -
the Malaysian Government is poised to announce a new, national certification
scheme that will include both larger plantation companies, and small
farmers. The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard (MSPO) will bring
together strong legal protections and regulations on oil palm cultivation,
into one national standard. MSPO can give confidence both to small farmers -
that their contribution is recognized, and that their place in supply chains
is respected - and to Western consumers - that the palm oil in their
products has been produced responsibly.
Malaysian palm oil producers, both the larger plantations and the small
farmers, are proud to produce palm oil, and proud of the responsible
production in place methods across Malaysia. This includes strong
environmental protection. The Malaysian Government promised, at the UN Earth
Summit in Rio, to maintain a minimum of 50% forest cover. That commitment
was made in 1992, and it is still being comfortably achieved today. This is
sustainable development - bringing together economic, social and
environmental protections. Small farmers of palm oil, and the new MSPO
standard, are living proof that it is possible. We just need to get the word