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Countdown to sustainable palm oil

As food manufacturers and retailers commit to sustainable palm oil by 2015, the race is on to secure supplies. The question is: why are we worried in the first place?

Sustainability concerns related to palm oil production have been on the food industry’s agenda for more than a decade. Since the founding of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004, many manufacturers and retailers have pledged their commitment to eliminating palm oil that is not RSPO-certified from food products.

Among Europe’s large retailers and food companies, the general consensus is that the palm oil supply chain should be entirely sustainable by 2015. Retailers include Marks & Spencer, Asda and Carrefour, while on the bakery side Allied Bakeries and Harry’s (Barilla) can be mentioned. As a founder RSPO member, the WWF provides an overview of palm oil buyers’ performance on its website.

Other companies have taken a more radical step and chosen to eliminate palm oil from their products in favour of alternatives such as rapeseed and sunflower oil.

But what are we actually worrying about when we choose not to use conventional palm oil? I asked Jannick Schmidt, who has written a PhD thesis on palm oil life cycle analysis, to give his insights into how palm oil production affects the environment and the local communities where it is produced.

Jannick, when we talk about the impact of palm oil production, we talk about rainforest destruction and the destroyed habitat of orang-utans. Is this a realistic picture?

As long as you have an oil palm plantation, you have an impact on biodiversity. This is because the plantation, like all other crops, occupies some of the land area available for agriculture. It is the overall pressure on agricultural land that contributes to deforestation. When rainforest is cleared, this has an impact on wildlife and the locals who use it. However, the palm oil industry also creates jobs in the community.

Besides the effect on biodiversity, the main environmental impact is greenhouse gas emissions, which occur when oil palms are cultivated on peat soil, causing thousands of years’ worth of trapped CO2 to be released. Another important source is the methane gas that develops when wastewater from palm oil mills is treated in open anaerobic ponds. The third hotspot is particle pollution created by the burning of oil palm residues – fibre and palm kernel shells – to supply the mill with energy.

Are there more sustainability issues related to palm oil production than other types of vegetable oil?

In terms of environmental impact, there is not much difference between palm oil and any other vegetable oil. The question is more about where you can make a difference by reducing the burden – for example by capturing the methane produced by wastewater in a biogas plant or by avoiding cultivation on peat soil.

With such initiatives, palm oil could actually have a better environmental profile than other oils. In fact, it is the oil associated with the most significant potential improvement options.

The biggest PR problem for the palm oil industry is the visible clearance of rainforest to make way for new plantations, which is due to the general growth in global demand for agricultural land. We do not notice it when more fields are planted with rapeseed because this takes place at the expense of other crops, such as barley and maize – but the net effect on the global demand for agricultural land is the same.

What is the role of the RSPO in mitigating the impact of palm oil production?

The RSPO has been more successful in implementing improvements in palm oil production than traditional environmental legislation. When plants become certified, they gain better control over their production and awareness of eco-efficiency. For example, new plantings on peat soil and in high value conservation areas are avoided. There are also many demands related to the workforce and local community.

Is it better not to buy palm oil at all?

When NGOs encourage food manufacturers to buy rapeseed oil instead of palm oil, what you have to remember is that rapeseed production would have to be expanded correspondingly to meet the demand for vegetable oil. To do so would have roughly the same impact on the environment as palm oil production.

Just because we choose local ‘non-rainforest’ crops, the indirect impact on deforestation is not avoided.

However, when manufacturers avoid crops that are not RSPO-certified, this sends a strong signal. This may encourage growers to take actions that could result in a net reduction in deforestation.

Is RSPO-certified palm oil the ultimate solution to the sustainability issues?

There could be more focus on eco-efficient production, in terms of impact per kilo of oil. Means to improve eco-efficiency include avoiding cultivation of peat soil, introduction of biogas plants, improvements in palm oil yield and better use of by-products. But RSPO certification goes a long way in the right direction.

At DuPont, we supply the bakery industry with emulsifiers based on RSPO-certified segregated and mass balance palm oil, along with a broad assortment of palm-free emulsifiers.