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Why the palm oil problem is still far from solved

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Even though palm oil has been a subject of debate for many years, it is still heavily used. So much so that chances are about 50% that you’ll find palm oil (or one of its derivatives) on the ingredient list of a food or personal hygiene product in the supermarket. While consumer campaigns led by environmental and social non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have raised public awareness about the negative impacts of oil palm production, the global market is still growing exponentially.

There is overwhelming evidence that the palm oil industry plays a role in the drive of climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and the abuse of indigenous and community rights. And even now, after many years of policy-making, the “palm oil problem” is still unsolved. This makes us wonder what we (as consumers) can do to change the destructive course of the industry. But before we go there, we first need to dive a bit deeper into the world of palm oil and discuss if we can and should go without.

An ingredient that is often hidden in plain sight

We all consume about 8 kilograms of palm oil annually, but most of the time, without knowing it. While a lack of consumer awareness may be one of the reasons, unclear product labelling is another. Nowadays, brands use more than 500 different names to list palm oil or one of its derivatives on their products. And without legislation to stop vague labelling, palm oil will remain hidden in plain sight. And from cookies to shampoo, if you buy processed, it’s almost impossible to avoid.

Luckily, it’s not always unclear if a product contains palm oil or not. Many brands claim only to use ‘RSPO-certified’ or ‘Sustainable sourced’ palm oil, and some choose to proactively promote their products as ‘Palm free’ and state that they avoid palm oil at all costs, confirming that there is a thing as unsustainable palm oil. Precisely why environmental organisations have been actively campaigning against “dirty palm”, “conflict palm”, or palm oil entirely – we all remember the viral ‘Rang-tan’ commercial from Greenpeace and supermarket chain Iceland, right? With this video, they wanted to show us one of the terrible aspects of our addiction to palm oil: deforestation of the tropical rainforest.

Rang-tan: the story of dirty palm oil – narrated by Emma Thompson

In the end, the commercial was never broadcasted on TV because it was considered to be a “political advertisement”, which is not allowed on British television. Luckily, the “TV ban” caused a stir on social media, spotlighting the ongoing deforestation pushed by the palm oil industry. The commercial came after the supermarket chain announced it would phase out palm oil from all its own-branded products. But replacing palm oil hasn’t been easy. In fact, it proved to be so difficult that Iceland removed its own name from the products instead.

How the world got addicted to palm oil

Phasing out palm oil has been hard for many brands because palm oil provides unique characteristics that are challenging to reproduce with other vegetable oils. In general, palm oil comes in two forms: Palm Oil (extracted from the flesh of the oil palm fruit) and Palm Kernel Oil (extracted from the seed of the oil palm fruit). Both types of oil are solid at room temperature because they are highly saturated with fat (50% and 85%, respectively), making them incredibly useful for various food applications. They do not alter products’ taste, smell and look, act as natural preservatives and maintain their properties at high temperatures, making them ideal for cooking.

Because palm oil is free from trans-fat and lower in saturated fat than butter, it experienced a huge popularity boost in the early 90s when multinational Unilever decided to remove trans-fatty acids (i.e., trans-fat) from all its food products. By then, research had shown that this type of fat increases the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Because trans-fat is only found in animal-derived products, such as meat and dairy, or in hydrogenated vegetable oils (a process in which a liquid unsaturated fat is solidified by adding hydrogen), Unilever decided to switch to palm oil instead. Shortly after, nearly all other food manufacturers followed, drastically changing the processed food industry.

Unlike other vegetable oils, palm oil is easily separated into different oil consistencies, making it suitable for purposes other than food. While mainly used for processed food, palm oil is also widely used in shampoo, detergent, soap, and cosmetics. In the ’80s, palm oil slowly replaced synthetic ingredients and tallow – animal fat – in soaps and cosmetics. The personal care industry noticed a consumer preference for more “natural” ingredients. This development gained momentum after the BSE outbreak in the early 90s – commonly known as mad cow disease – when the brain disease spread from cattle to those who ate the infected meat. This stimulated a change of consumption habits within the US and Europe – steering other industries, such as the personal health care industry, further away from animal-derived ingredients in their products. Today, approximately 70% of all cosmetics and other personal care products contain at least one palm oil derivative. And with that, you could say we’ve become addicted to it.

How palm oil ended up in our cars

Globally, roughly 60 to 70% of all imported palm oil ends up in consumer products such as food and cosmetics. The rest of the palm oil mainly finds its way into the industrial sector as agrofuel – biofuel produced by agricultural means – or biomass – as a source for heat or electricity generation. However, in Europe, it is the other way around; most of the imported palm oil is used to get the cars moving instead of our bodies.

This is one of the unintended consequences of the adoption of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which had the intent to reduce environmental harm by increasing the total energy consumption from “renewable energy resources“– 10% by 2020 (RED) and 32% by 2030 (RED-II). This decision made Europe the fourth biggest consumer (2019 EU-27 data) of palm oil (~9%) after Indonesia (~20%), India (~12%), and China (~10%). In reference, the top 10 is dominated by seven Asian countries that predominantly use palm oil as cooking oil and consume 60% of all produced palm oil – the US closes the top 10 with a total consumption of ~2%.

Worldwide production of palm oil has been climbing steadily for years. In the past 25 years, annual production has increased 5-fold, from 15.9 million tonnes in 1995 to 79.1 in 2019 (corrected with new FAOSTAT data). And with the global population reaching almost 10 billion people in 2050, palm oil production is expected to double next 2.5 decades.

Unfortunately, the growing palm oil market comes with a heavy price. In the past decades, Indonesia – which produces 55% of all crude and refined palm oil – has been deforested faster than any other country in the world. Large areas of tropical rainforest and other ecosystems have been cleared – slashed and burned – to make place for palm oil plantations, clearing the biodiversity with it. Because most of the cleared area in Southeast Asia is peatland soil, it needs to be drained to make it suitable for palm oil cultivation. Western countries encouraged the use of palm oil as fuel to reduce greenhouse emission output and slow down global warming. But this gullible decision backfired because the clearing and burning of tropical forests for new oil palm plantations released enormous amounts of carbon stored in the peatland soil.

Even though new deforestation criteria have been added to the RED-II in recent years and Europe mainly imports certified palm oil now (approximately 90% of all European imported palm oil in 2021 is certified in one way or another), the damage to the environment has already been done. New RED-II criteria favour rapeseed, sunflower seed and soybean oil over palm oil for “green” biofuel production (often a mixture of the four). However, that doesn’t make it necessarily less damaging. In contrast, the far majority of the imported palm oil in Europe is certified to be deforestation-free; that’s only the case for 19% of the imported soybean oil. Besides, oil palm production uses far less land than any other oilseed crop. Just swapping palm oil for something else will not solve the problem and will most likely result in more deforestation and biodiversity loss, bringing us to the palm oil problem.

The palm oil problem

The oil palm is perennial and evergreen – trees last for about 25 years, and the fruit can be harvested once every ten days – enabling year-round palm oil production. More importantly, palm oil gives the highest yield per hectare compared to other oil seed crops – five times as much oil per hectare as rapeseed, almost six times as much as sunflower seed and about eight times as much as soybean (3.8, 0.8, 0.7 and 0.5 tonnes oil per hectare land respectively). With only 6.6% of the total land used for vegetable oil production, oil palm plantations fill up 38.7% of the barrels. Not only that: palm oil requires less fertiliser, pesticide, and energy input than its competitors, making it super efficient and incredibly cheap. However, productivity is not the same as sustainability. The industry often uses the oil palm’s high yield and efficiency to mask the crop’s environmental impact.

palm oil long read - yield per crop

The problem with palm oil is that it tends to expand into biodiverse-rich tropical forests more often than other oil crops. Plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, together responsible for 85% of all palm oil production, have been connected to tropical deforestation and peatland degradation, resulting in high carbon emissions and the destruction of the crucial habitat of endangered species. While destroying the critical habitat of orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants, we drive plants, insects, and other animal species to extinction. And now that the industry quickly expands into tropical forests in Thailand, Nigeria and Colombia, the problem is far from solved.

While it is true that the palm oil industry has lifted many people out of poverty, even more people suffer the consequences. The industry is often associated with corruption, the infringement of land rights, debt bondage, human trafficking, forced (child) labour and sexual harassment. And with a toxic haze – smog and smoke caused by fires to prep the land for new plantations – blanketing the South East Asian region every year during the dry season, millions of people also suffer the indirect consequences.

Those living near the annual fire hotspots are exposed to particles that can cause severe health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to experts, thousands of people, including children, died prematurely after extreme haze events in 1997, 2006, 2013, 2015 and 2019. A study by Harvard estimated that the 2015 haze crisis has led to the deaths of more than 100.000 people alone. Our dependency on palm oil has not only contributed to enormous environmental devastation but has also caused a humanitarian crisis.

RSPO: an attempt to transform the palm oil industry

In response to public concern about the destructive course of the palm oil industry, various stakeholders, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Unilever and the Malaysia Palm Oil Association (MPOA), founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification system (RSPO) intending to promote environmental and social sustainability within the palm oil industry. Since then, the RSPO has become the most dominant sustainability framework for non-biodiesel uses of palm oil – peaking at a total volume of 14.7 million tonnes of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in 2021. In proportion, this is approximately 19% of global palm oil production.

Because the conventional way of doing things could be more sustainable (economically, socially, and environmentally), RSPO wants palm oil producers (growers, mills and crushers) to become RSPO certified. But that begs the question: what does it mean to be a certified palm oil producer? To become certified, palm oil producers need to comply with seven RSPO principles (and a long list of criteria and indicators):

  1. Behave ethically and transparently
  2. Operate legally and respect rights
  3. Optimise productivity, efficiency, positive impacts and resilience
  4. Respect community and human rights and deliver benefits
  5. Support smallholder inclusion
  6. Respect workers’ rights and conditions
  7. Protect, conserve and enhance ecosystems and the environment

The entire certification procedure requires documentation, materials, training, assessments, a registration fee and third-party audits, entailing upfront costs for those that wish to enter the RSPO market. After obtaining certification, they must deal with recurrent costs (membership fee, surveillance audits and management) and the costs that come with a different way of farming. In return, RSPO promises that certification will lead to increased yield, better fruit quality, improved land management practices, strengthened partnerships, and access to stable markets while improving overall social and environmental sustainability.

With this promise, RSPO has united many policymakers, NGOs, investors, retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, processors and growers over the last two decades. But even though the number of RSPO members and the total volume of produced CSPO has been growing steadily for years, the proportion of global production covered by RSPO certificates has been hovering at around 19% since 2014.

A certification scheme that is hard to sell

According to RSPO’s numbers and global consumption data, most certified palm oil ends up in European and North American markets (41% and 17%, respectively), where products with a certificate have a higher market share because of consumer awareness. But because of a lack of demand for sustainable palm oil in other markets, only 58% is sold with certificates; the remaining volume is downgraded to “conventional” palm oil or exchanged for cheaper biofuel certifications. Therefore, CSPO only makes up 11% of the globally consumed palm oil. RSPO’s growth has plateaued mainly because of a lack of demand in high-consuming markets like India and China. While their shared consumption accounts for over a fifth of the world’s entire palm oil supply, their CSPO consumption remains very low (3% and 6%, respectively). Convincing these markets to invest in sustainably sourced palm oil is crucial. Otherwise, RSPO will not break through the 19% ceiling.

Another critical factor is that smallholders (farmers with less than 50ha of planted palm oil area) are currently underrepresented in the RSPO certification scheme. And with approximately 7 million palm oil smallholders around the globe that farm on roughly 40% of all planted palm oil area worldwide, it’s vital that RSPO gets them on board. Their participation is needed to meet the growing demand for palm oil while sticking to zero deforestation commitments and the need to be more sustainable overall. Right now, smallholders account for less than 10% of all produced certified palm oil globally while responsible for 30% of the world’s palm oil supply. Meanwhile, they just generate 6% of the global palm oil value and their profits are almost zero – virtually all profits disappear to the pockets of retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, refineries and large-scale commercial plantations.

Many smallholder plantations are poorly maintained and yield significantly lower than large commercial plantations. With less income, a lack of agricultural know-how and little concern for sustainability, smallholders are a significant driver of expansion into forests and peatlands. With increased yield, improved land management practices and access to a stable palm oil market, RSPO can drastically improve smallholders’ livelihoods while significantly reducing palm oil’s negative impact. But with the high level of literacy required by the long and multi-layered certification process, the needed funding and the fact that financial rewards of certification often do not trickle down, RSPO is having a hard time selling its scheme.

If RSPO wants to keep up with the growing demand for palm oil by increasing yields in existing production areas, there is only one solution: simplify the certification process for smallholders and let them be part of the transformation – even if that requires financial support. Recent changes to the certification system may offer precisely that, but they still need to be proven effective. As of 2019, smallholders can enter the certification process with less strict initial requirements and work towards full compliance in 3 years, unlocking more (financial) benefits as they progress.

The value of RSPO trademarks

By buying into RSPO-certified palm oil, a company can demonstrate that they are willing to – and they should – take responsibility for protecting the environment and improving social and labour practices within their supply chain. By doing so, a company boosts the demand for sustainable palm oil. This increases market uptake and encourages farmers to produce according to sustainable and social standards, and moves the baseline of conventional palm oil sourcing. In the end, the baseline must be sustainable.

Companies that use RSPO-certified palm oil can use the RSPO seal (trademark) on their products to differentiate their products from others. This also helps consumers easily recognise which brands are sourcing their palm oil sustainably. But given the complexity of the supply chain, RSPO trademarks come in three different flavours, each based on a certain level of traceability. To be able to recognise one from the other and understand their differences, we need to go over the four levels of the RSPO certification system:

  1. The lowest level is ‘Book & Claim’ (BC), which functions as an offset scheme. If a palm oil producer, mill or crusher is not able to sell their product with certification due to a lack of demand, they need to downgrade it to a non-certified product to be able to sell it. In return, they are given credits that can be sold to those that wish to make an RSPO claim. Companies that buy these credits are allowed to print the RSPO logo, together with the word ‘CREDIT’, on the packaging of their products if at least 95% of the used non-certified palm oil is covered with credits (1 credit equals 1 tonne of palm oil). This way, a company supports sustainable practices in the supply chain, but chances are high that the final products do NOT contain sustainable palm oil.
  2. The second level is ‘Mass Balance’ (MB), where certified and non-certified palm oil can be mixed along the supply chain, but records must be kept of proportions (e.g. 65% certified, 35% non-certified). If a company buys off the non-certified proportion with BC credits, it is allowed to make an RSPO claim on its products. If more than 50% of the total volume is certified through the MB model, the company is allowed to print the RSPO logo, together with the word ‘MIXED’, on the packaging of its products. If less than 50% is covered through the MB model, it will be considered as BC, and the word CREDIT must be used instead. By buying through the MB model, a company contributes to sustainable practices in the supply chain. Still, chances are high that the final products contain both certified and non-certified palm oil.
  3. The third level is ‘Segregated’ (SG), where certified palm oil from different producers is allowed to be mixed somewhere along the supply chain. While it is not possible to trace the palm oil back to individual plantations, the model ensures that the mixed oil is only coming from RSPO-certified sources. If a company uses palm oil and more than 95% of the total volume is certified through the SG model, the company is allowed to print the RSPO logo, together with the word ‘CERTIFIED’, on the packaging of its products. If less than 95% is certified through the SG model, it will be either MB, BC or even non-certified. By buying through the SG model, a company invests in sustainable practices in the supply chain and can guarantee that final products contain certified palm oil almost entirely.
  4. The fourth level is ‘Identity Preserved’ (IP), where certified palm oil can be traced back to individual plantations, ensuring that the oil only comes from RSPO-certified sources. As with the SG model, a company is allowed to use the RSPO logo, together with the word ‘CERTIFIED’ on the packaging of its products, if at least 95% of the total volume is RSPO-certified. But buying through the IP model offers more traceability, allowing companies to transform the industry on a more individual level. If less than 95% is certified through the IP model, it will be either SG, MB, BC or even non-certified.

As one can guess, higher traceability comes with a higher cost for the buyer (in this case, the consumer goods manufacturer). Where credit-bought palm oil (BC) comes with a premium of 0.1 – 0.3% of the base price, a premium of 2.4 – 7.5% needs to be paid for more traceable palm oil (SG or IP) [note that the price of a premium differs per palm oil derivative and fluctuates with market demand]. Still, many manufacturers are not playing their part by only doing the bare minimum to keep critics at bay or because they “believe” consumers are unwilling to pay a higher premium. But, as with any other industry, with only a minor increase on the buyer side, multinationals can significantly impact the seller side. Besides, with palm oil often being only a minor ingredient and one of many, any premium will have little effect on the price of a bottle of shampoo.

But if we really want to understand RSPO’s impact, we must take a look at the share of the four models. Approximately half of the total certified volume (actual production) is produced under the MB model (certified and uncertified tossed together and sold, but ratio’s kept), and the other half is produced under the SG or IP model (certified and traceable to the mill or individual plantation). But with the lack of demand, only 58% is sold with certificates, and traceability gets lost along the supply chain. According to RSPO, approximately 45% is physically sold as MB, SG and IP (roughly equally spread – let’s assume 15% each), and the remaining 13% is sold as online credits (BC). When you look at it from the consumption side, only 5.7% of the world’s palm oil supply is certified and somewhat traceable, 5.3% is sold as certified, but chances are high that it’s not, 8% was certified and perhaps traceable at some point, but is not anymore, and 81% was never RSPO certified to begin with.

But in general certified palm oil is not consumed in its original form. Instead, it’s processed (separated, combined, refined, you name it) into one of many derivatives that are on the market. And with all the formulations and derivatives clouding the supply chain, it is challenging to ensure that palm oil is sustainably produced. And even when the certification system is working as it is supposed to, without full traceability and transparency, there is a high probability that uncertified palm oil seeps into the supply chain somewhere.

RSPO under the loop

Unfortunately, even buying the highest level of RSPO certification doesn’t guarantee that palm oil is produced economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. As a result, RSPO’s certification system has received a lot of criticism over the past two decades. Critics (read: environmental and social justice organisations, scientists, policymakers and activists) have repeatedly stated that the certification system is severely lacking and too lenient towards its members. And while progress has been made in recent years, the scheme is still accused of enabling illegal expansion into peatlands, the onsite killing of elephants, child labour and even corporate greenwashing.

Third-party auditing is an important way for RSPO to check whether its members meet the criteria to obtain or keep certification. The audits are designed to detect noncompliance with certification standards and to ensure that palm oil producers resolve the non-conformities. But if licenced auditors repeatedly fail to identify and mitigate serious labour abuses, labour trafficking, illegal land clearing and indigenous land right claims, the entire assessment system loses credibility. And with proven conflicts of interest between palm oil producers and auditors, many unsustainable practices and environmental crimes are being greenwashed under RSPO’s trademarks. In the 2015 and 2019 released reports “Who Watches the Watchmen?” and “Who Watches the Watchmen? II“, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its partner Grassroots concluded that RSPO fails to conduct proper monitoring and implement sanctions with members that commit violations. And without adequate monitoring from auditors and RSPO, oversight is left to NGOs and local communities.

Palm Oil in Papua | A Greenpeace Investigation – showing how NGOs track deforestation caused by the timber and palm oil industry.

The same reports discuss that RSPO is too slow to penalise members that break the rules. Because it takes an average of 700 days before complaints are closed, companies can withdraw from certification before any ruling or sanction is issued by RSPO. By simply selling assets to non-RSPO members or moving accused associates to other uncertified companies, members can avoid accountability and suspension or termination of the RSPO membership. EIA argues that RSPO seems discouraged from sanctioning members because they want to minimise the risk of losing them. But, if NGOs and activists manage to draw “enough” attention to the raised issues, RSPO follows.

In the 2018 released report “The False Promise of Certification“, the corporate watchdog Changing Markets Foundation discusses that improving RSPO standards is a complicated and slow process. With only little representation from labour unions, indigenous communities and civil society organisations within RSPO, it is hard to challenge standards suggested and supported by the corporate majority. And with corporate profits on the line, many standards end up being of poor quality. Restrictions are mostly imposed on palm oil producers, while other members are bound to very little.

In 2019, EIA reported that 20% of the consuming RSPO members were sourcing absolutely no certified palm oil and that many others were doing the bare minimum. Now company members can make all sorts of claims, like being an RSPO member, suggesting to do something about unsustainable palm oil. At the same time, there are no current requirements for them to reach 100% certification or buy certified palm oil. And with that, big palm oil corporations can continue with their environmental crimes under the term “sustainability”. This is why, in 2018, more than 100 global organisations signed an open letter from Friends of the Earth International and the World Rainforest Movement calling out the RSPO certification system for enabling corporate greenwashing.

But some environmental crimes do not even need to be hidden. For the first 15 years of RSPO’s existence, products could earn an RSPO certificate even if the palm oil came from a piece of freshly deforested land. Expansion into tropical forests and peatlands was allowed until RSPO finally decided to tighten its standards in 2018. But even today, dirty palm oil is sold with the blessing of RSPO. According to EIA, companies can simply “compensate” for deforestation by conserving an area elsewhere or paying to do so. But an offset scheme like this cannot bring back the fallen trees and all the lives and livelihoods lost in the name of profit.

So, are we parting with dirty palm oil?

While RSPO’s progress is slow, and its certification system is not without flaws, it’s the best thing we have right now. Of course, something could be said about limiting our oil consumption in general, but we can’t boycott palm oil if that means we’ll swap it with other vegetable oils or animal-derived products. Palm oil is a very efficient crop that can be grown economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable; RSPO is just not there yet. This is why most environmental and civil society organisations are not calling for a boycott or ban on palm oil; they are working to transform the industry instead. And until we are there, we must support certification systems like RSPO while we push them to raise the standards even higher.

But RSPO is not the only initiative we should be betting on. Some companies see the situation as it is and are “willing” to go “above and beyond” to change the destructive course of the oil palm industry. Many are RSPO members but have also made ‘No Deforestation, Peat, and Exploitation‘ (NDPE) commitments. By doing so, companies commit to starting a due diligence process of their value chain and promise to track their progress, identify the gaps, and work together to implement necessary changes. While such commitments are just as voluntary as the RSPO membership is, they are a significant step in the right direction. But as long as NDPE commitments do not include actual target dates and are not binding market requirements, it will take a long time to eradicate deforestation and social exploitation within the industry.

Can we brew ourselves out of the palm oil crisis?

To enforce a transformation from a different direction, some companies have been busy brewing up oils that may be able to replace palm oil in the future. And while it is not likely that they will be an alternative to the palm oil produced today, they may represent a more sustainable alternative for the growing demand of tomorrow. With help from naturally developed oil-rich yeast strains, SynBio (i.e. Synthetic Biology) labs from C16 Bioscience, Clean Food Group, NoPalm Ingredients and Xylome Corporation have successfully grown oil alternatives that perfectly replicate palm oil derivatives. And while some critics have deemed lab-grown palm oil unviable, the alt-palm producers are currently upscaling their production and are within reaching distance of the EU, UK and US edible oil markets.

Recently, Netherlands-based organisation NoPalm Ingredients announced a joint pilot with multinational Colgate-Palmolive to produce alternative oils for the personal healthcare and cosmetics industry. To do so, they will use waste streams from the world’s largest beer brewer AB InBev, which makes the precision fermentation of palm oil alternatives much more interesting. In theory, yeast can be grown on almost every feedstock, but the challenge lies in growing high-producing strains for different types of food-safe waste streams. And it is not only the oil itself that is interesting; the leftover biomass could be used to substitute soybean protein.

If alt-palm producers scale up to an industrial level in the next couple of years, they could help address the ongoing deforestation pushed by oil palm and soybean plantations. However, this also begs the question; Who’s market share are they taking? Will it be 81% of non-certified palm oil production, 19% of the certified output, or both? Current alt-palm producers are EU, UK or US based, and it is these markets that they are aiming for – markets where the demand for RSPO-certified oils is relatively high. Investments in Clean Food Group and NoPalm Ingredients mainly come from large multinationals that are RSPO members. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to farm, refine and transport a product that can also be grown locally, but a shift in market demand mustn’t leave people without food on their plates.

After NoPalm Ingredients announced that they had tested several waste streams, including potato peels, avocado residues and vegetable mix, they asked which waste streams others would find the most intriguing to test at their lab. We would answer their question with another:

Oil palm cultivation generates a large quantity of biomass, but only 15% of the volume ends up as palm oil or palm kernel oil. The rest is inefficiently used (burned up) as biofuel, biomass or pellets for electricity generation. Instead of burning excess biomass, could local “palm oil breweries” bring some of it back into the value chain? With other local waste streams, excess biomass could function as a feedstock to produce even more palm oil, effectively increasing the output per hectare of land used for oil palm production. When alt-palm producers effectively work with millers, crushers and farmers, they can significantly impact how palm oil is produced on existing land. In this way, they could help feed the world of tomorrow without land use tradeoffs but with more dignified jobs in oil-producing countries.

A way forward

This article has become much longer than we intended – props if you have stayed with us this long. We got tangled up in the industry’s complexity, and untangling needed many different perspectives. All leads us to conclude that the palm oil problem is far from solved. But that doesn’t mean that we (consumers) should sit and wait for the problem to solve itself. We can all participate in the transformation of the oil palm industry. After all, sustainability is a shared journey. If we want the world to produce sustainable timber, palm oil, cocoa, cotton or rubber, we must support that movement and be a part of the change.

Here are a couple of ways you can get involved yourself – know that many points apply to being a responsible and conscious consumer in general:

  • Keep an eye out for developments within the palm oil industry. If you do, focus on independent research and always check the sources.
  • Challenge the greenwashing claims and schemes obscuring the reality of the impact of the products we buy, and demand transparency – this includes vague labelling.
  • Talk with others about the “footprint” of the products we buy. If we want to make an impact, it is crucial to normalise taking responsibility and being a conscious consumer.
  • Follow and support NGOs and investigation bodies that challenge unsustainable practices/schemes/policies in the palm oil industry and share their critical findings.
  • Sign open letters and petitions from NGOs and investigation bodies. They help raise awareness and signal public opinion to the media and decision-makers.
  • Be a critical thinker: don’t blindly believe every stamp on a package. Avoid products containing conventional palm oil and opt for those with an RSPO certification instead – make sure it is CERTIFIED (IP or SG; contains certified sustainable palm oil) and not MIXED (MB; contributes to the production of sustainable palm oil) or CREDIT (BC; supports the production of sustainable palm oil).
  • Check the RSPO website to see if your favourite brand is sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (IP or SG). If not, it is time to call them out!
  • The RSPO website will also state if your favourite brand is fully compliant. If they are not submitting mill lists or grievances, ask them (politely via email, phone, letter or DM – be patient and do follow-ups) when they aim to be 100% RSPO compliant – they should have been within five years.
  • Appreciate and enjoy the learning process and embrace every step you make to improve the world we live in <3
Elise & Joy

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